It began, shockingly enough, with the biggest offensive explosion of the season. The Nationals opened their just-completed, seven-game road trip with a 17-2 dismantling of the Diamondbacks, a blowout win that saw everyone in the starting lineup score at least once.
At last, here was evidence the Nats’ sluggish offense was ready to bust out for good.
Instead, the road trip turned into a bust for this team, and specifically its still struggling lineup.
Over their next six games in Arizona and Chicago, the Nationals scored a total of 19 runs. They never topped four in any individual game. They managed to win two of them, but only on the strength of their pitching staff.
“I really thought we were going to break through,” manager Davey Martinez said on Zoom following Thursday’s 5-2 loss to the Cubs. “Started the road trip off with a bang. But we’ve run into some tough luck. We’ve had some days where we hit the ball really hard and had nothing to show for it. There’s all these at-bats that stick out in my head. ... There’s tons of them. I’ve just got to praise the boys and tell them to keep going. They’ll fall. They’ll find holes. Just keep swinging the bats.”
That’s all Martinez can preach at this point, but it’s fair to start wondering if the Nationals really are due to catch some breaks, or (gulp) if they’re just not that good.
On countless occasions over the last month and a half, Martinez and others with the club have lamented the fact they keep hitting the ball hard but keep hitting it at someone. And there is some truth to it. Certainly, on any given night, they’re liable to be robbed of an RBI single or double on a ball that leaves the hitter’s bat at 100 mph or more.
But overall, the stats don’t suggest the Nats have been particularly unlucky. Their batting average on balls in play for the season is .303. That ranks fifth in the majors. It actually suggests they’ve recorded a few more hits than they should have, not fewer.
There are two more telling reasons for the Nationals’ run-scoring woes: They aren’t delivering in clutch situations and they’re not pulling the ball in the air enough.
Despite leading the National League with a .251 batting average in all situations, the Nats are batting a paltry .220 with runners in scoring position (26th in the majors) to go along with a .653 OPS (27th). They’re even worse with two outs and runners in scoring position, producing a .176 batting average and .575 OPS (both 29th out of 30 clubs).
“We have all the talent in the world. We just have to come through in clutch situations,” first baseman Josh Bell said. “We have to drive the baseball when mistakes are made.”
He’s right on both counts. The Nationals don’t just need flares over the shortstop’s head with runners on third base. They need to pull the ball to the outfield with force.
The Nationals pull fewer balls than any other team in the majors (35.9 percent) while hitting more balls to center field than anyone (39.5 percent). Martinez often preaches the notion of “using the big part of the field,” but that’s not leading to more hits, certainly not extra-base hits.
Compounding the problem, the Nationals hit the ball on the ground 47.8 percent of the time, the third-highest rate in the majors. Only 30.4 percent of their batted balls are fly balls, 29th in the majors.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys in our lineup that can hit the ball out of the ballpark,” Martinez said. “They’ve done it in the past. I believe they’re going to do it.”
Perhaps they will in due time. Perhaps the back-to-back homers Bell and Kyle Schwarber hit Thursday (albeit to the opposite field) and the towering blast Juan Soto belted off the right field scoreboard a Wrigley Field the previous night were encouraging signs.
But this needs to start happening with more regularity - and from more members of the lineup.
The Nationals have now played 40 games, roughly one-quarter of the season. At 17-23, they’ve got some ground to make up. They are one game better than they stood at this point in 2019, when they famously plummeted to 19-31 before going on an historic run all the way to their first World Series title. And they’re two games ahead of last summer’s pace during the abbreviated 60-game season.
But it’s not early anymore. The Nats can’t use that as an excuse. Nor can they blame injuries for their woes. Once Stephen Strasburg comes off the injured list tonight, they’ll be as close to 100 percent healthy as they’ve been in a long time.
This is their team and this is their lineup. As such, these are the players who will have to flip the switch after a subpar opening 40-game stretch and make it a distant memory by the time they reach the 80-game mark in July.
“I feel like our starting pitchers have given us a chance pretty much every time they go out there,” Bell said. “If we can put more runs on the board for them, these next 40 games are going to be huge for us.”