Searching for change

The only time that the Nationals were at or below the .500 mark all of last year was four games into the season, when they were the owners of a 2-2 record.

That’s not to suggest that the Nats’ ride in 2012 didn’t have some bumps along the way, because it definitely did. But one thing is certain - the first third of this year’s ride has been a heck of a lot more turbulent than what we saw during the 2012 regular season.

The Nationals are 27-27 after their first 54 games of the 2013 campaign. They just lost three of four to the Orioles, including a 2-0 defeat yesterday that marked their seventh shutout of the season.

Just for comparison’s sake, the Nats were shut out eight times all of last season.

Davey Johnson is getting tired of having to address the same issues with the Nats offense seemingly every other day, and you can’t really blame him. Every time the Nats bust out offensively, Johnson talks about how he’s hoping that means they’ve turned a corner, and then a day or two later, he’s left analyzing another poor offensive showing.

Johnson was asked after last night’s loss whether he’d consider making some changes. His response: Probably, “but that’s for another day.”

In theory, making changes when a team is struggling sounds like a great idea. Shake things up, write in a new-look batting order, make some adjustments to your starting eight position players. Cool, let’s have at it.

Problem is, what changes can Johnson really make right now?

Yes, Johnson could try and shuffle things up in the order, but he’s done that multiple times already. How many different spots in the batting order does a guy need to find himself before he starts reaching base and producing with runners in scoring position?

As for lineup changes, yes, Johnson could take the struggling and banged-up Danny Espinosa out in favor of Steve Lombardozzi. That’s one switch that the Nats skipper could choose to make, and after Espinosa went 1-for-7 with an infield single and three strikeouts in his two games since returning from nearly a week of rest, Johnson might go that route tonight.

But if you think Espinosa is the Nationals’ only problem right now, you’ve got an incredibly narrow view of things.

The last two nights, Tyler Moore, Chad Tracy and Kurt Suzuki went a combined 0-for-21 with six strikeouts and 11 runners left on base. Moore and Roger Bernadina have started to strike the ball with more authority of late, but those two are still batting just .144 and .154, respectively. Tracy is hitting .160 after going hitless in three at-bats last night.

With those three in the lineup the last two days, the Nats’ bench consisted of a banged up Bryce Harper, Lombardozzi, Jeff Kobernus and Jhonatan Solano.

Lombardozzi’s .234/.254/.306 slash line looks good when next to that of the rest of the Goon Squad, but still is less than stellar. Kobernus has one career major league at-bat. Solano has 49.

So what big, sweeping changes can be made there? Outside of a possible switch at second base, the only real changes the Nats can make to the lineup will be when Harper and Jayson Werth (and then later on, Wilson Ramos) return from injury. Those are the changes that could have a serious and long-lasting impact on this team’s offensive production and overall success.

The Nats haven’t played with their full opening day lineup since April 14. That’s not an excuse, it’s a fact. You take the second and third hitters in any batting order out and see how that team will fare. Some might get by, but all will feel the effects.

When Harper and Werth return, Moore and Bernadina can go back to their bench roles, and hopefully by then, the extended playing time they’ve received recently has gotten them on track. But for the time being, they’re what the Nats have to go with.

Are the Nats getting frustrated by this level of play of late? Yes, of course they are, to an extent.

“But what are you going to do?” Espinosa said. “Are you going to flip things over and get mad every day? That’s not going to do anything. So I think as long as we go in prepared every day and get ready the way we know how to get ready, then it’s going to start going our way.

“Guys are going to start hitting. We’re going to start hitting as a team, our pitching’s going to continue to do well as they always do, and we’ll start winning more games.”

When Werth and Harper return, we should expect the offense to get a jolt and the defense to improve. Until then, there aren’t too many changes that can be made. The Nats will need to ride it out with the group they have and hope some of the guys who have proven they can contribute at this level can come around.

Johnson just hopes that comes soon.

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