SAN DIEGO - Last night, the Nationals trotted out a lineup with one of the wrinkles that seems to annoy fans most: Rick Ankiel in the leadoff spot. And though Ankiel got on base three times in five plate appearances, he didn't score a run, and got thrown out trying to steal third base with one out and Jayson Werth at the plate in the first inning.
"That was just bad judgment on my call," Ankiel said.
And for the Nationals, even getting a leadoff man on base three times registered as some kind of an accomplishment. An issue that was one of the team's biggest problems last season has gotten worse, and the Nationals don't seem to have any way to solve it right now.
Last season, the Nationals' leadoff hitters posted atrocious numbers for the entire season: a .237 batting average, .300 on-base percentage and .317 slugging percentage. The team traded Nyjer Morgan to Milwaukee this spring after the center fielder continued to struggle getting on base, hoping it could piece together a solution at the top of the lineup with the players that remained. But as bad as Morgan was last season, his .319 on-base percentage in 2010 would be a significant improvement now.
Here are the numbers for the Nationals' leadoff hitters this season: .212/.271/.309. And just for the heck of it, here are the numbers for the Nationals' No. 2 hitters this season: .218/.276/.299.
Here are the numbers for the Nationals' No. 8 hitters this season: .216/.269/.330.
In other words, the team's pitchers (or pinch hitters) are essentially just as likely to come to the plate with a man on base as Jayson Werth. And when you consider the fact the team's third- and fourth-highest on-base percentages come from their No. 6 and No. 7 hitters (.327 and .324, respectively), it's no wonder the offense is sputtering.
Teams win when their best hitters have chances to drive in runs. And thought Werth hasn't exactly capitalized on his chances, hitting .234 with men in scoring position, he's only had 65 plate appearances in that situation. In other words, he's only coming to the plate a quarter of the time with a realistic chance to drive in a run.
There might not be any bigger reason why the Nationals have failed to score runs the last two seasons. And absent a trade, it's unclear if they have a way to fix it.
General manager Mike Rizzo has been shopping for leadoff hitters, talking to the Astros about Michael Bourn, among others. But the price for a player like Bourn is going to be steep, and the Nationals wouldn't be the only team pursuing him if the Astros look to move him.
On days where Roger Bernadina is in the lineup, he's a lock to lead off; manager Jim Riggleman has said Bernadina is the most prototypical of his leadoff options, though he's added that not even Bernadina is a perfect fit. Bernadina's on-base percentage, though, is only .318. And when he's not in the lineup, Riggleman is left rifling through a group of players he's either already tried (Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond) or who haven't hit there much (Ankiel).
"We're looking for on-base (percentage) there. None of our leadoff hitters have gotten on base," Riggleman said. "Whether it's been Bernadina or Ankiel or Desmond or Espinosa, nobody has really felt comfortable in there, with a .350 on-base percentage. That's what you're looking for, and that's just not part of our offense that's going to click for us until we get somebody getting on base there."
When - or if - that happens is unclear. It's a big enough issue, though, that it could even dull the impact of Ryan Zimmerman's return. And until the Nationals get it fixed, they're left cycling through the same options, hoping something works.