ST. LOUIS - The Nationals’ chances of reaching the postseason are built on the broad shoulders of their elite starting rotation. Max Scherzer. Stephen Strasburg. Patrick Corbin. Aníbal Sánchez. That’s how this team was built to win, and it’s only going to win if those big arms come up big.
If only that was 100 percent true.
The Nationals rotation is very good, especially now that Scherzer appears to be back to his top form, or at least something very closely resembling it.
But that alone hasn’t been enough to propel the Nats the last two weeks.
Over their last 13 games, Nationals starters own a 2.99 ERA. They’re holding opponents to a .209 batting average and .671 OPS. They’ve struck out 89 batters in 75 1/3 innings. That’s very good.
You know what’s not very good during that same stretch? The Nats’ record. They’re 5-8 in those games.
And before you point every finger you can find at the bullpen, that’s not the real culprit here. No, the relievers collectively have not been good during these 13 games, but they’ve only been charged with two of the losses. The starters sport a 5-6 record.
The biggest culprit right now is a lineup that after a torrid late summer has turned awfully inconsistent in September. The Nationals have scored an average of 4.1 runs per game during this 13-game stretch, and even that number is a bit misleading because they’ve scored 40 of their 53 runs in only five games. (Not coincidentally, those are the five wins in the last 13 games.)
That means the Nationals have scored only 13 runs in their last eight losses. That’s a problem.
For all the praise that’s been heaped upon the starting rotation - and deservedly so - this team has been at its best not when it excels on the mound but when it excels at the plate. When things are clicking, this is one the deepest lineups in the majors, with a deep bench backing it up and capable of stepping in to deliver big hits late.
So what happened?
A few regulars are struggling. Adam Eaton, after a torrid August, is batting .188 with a .579 OPS in September. Ryan Zimmerman, aside from a handful of big extra-base hits, isn’t doing much else. He’s batting .212 this month.
The team misses Kurt Suzuki. As admirable a job as Yan Gomes has done taking over nearly everyday duties behind the plate, Suzuki’s absence the last two weeks with an elbow injury has been noticeable, making the bottom half of the lineup a lot less imposing than it was not long ago.
And the bench has turned downright impotent. Gerardo Parra is 1-for-21 this month, continuing a disturbing and long-term slump that has made his earlier season heroics seem like a distant memory. Matt Adams was already mired in a major funk before spraining his left shoulder. Brian Dozier is 2-for-13 this month and seeing very little playing time.
Put that all together and throw in some legitimately bad luck on well-struck balls - Asdrúbal Cabrera should’ve had a three-run homer late in Wednesday’s game but was robbed by Dexter Fowler on a brilliant play at the right field fence - and this what you end up with.
We can focus on the starting rotation and say that’s this team’s best chance of making to - and then potentially winning in - October.
But if the Nationals don’t start consistently scoring more runs, it won’t much matter how well Scherzer, Strasburg, Corbin and Sánchez pitch.