WASHINGTON — Don’t be fooled by the W. The Washington Nationals have an offense problem.
Yes, they managed to prevail in the finale of their three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles, squeaking out a 4-2 victory on Thursday night. Sure, they won two of three from their Battle of the Beltway rivals to take the series. But neither of those facts changes the cold, hard truth that nearly halfway through the season, the Nats’ bats aren’t living up to the hype.
Coming into the season, Washington’s lineup appeared loaded. Bryce Harper, who returned to MVP form last season before getting hurt in August, was fully healthy again. So too was sparkplug Adam Eaton, presumably, after missing most of last year. Hit machine Daniel Murphy was coming off microfracture surgery, but that was all the way back in October, giving him plenty of time to heal. Veteran Ryan Zimmerman was coming off his best season in years, young speedster Trea Turner was only going to continue to get better and glue guy Anthony Rendon remained one of the game’s most underrated hitters.
At least, that was the glass-half-full outlook. But so far, it’s been a glass-half-empty kind of season for the Nationals’ offense.
To be sure, injuries have played a key role. Eaton missed two months with an ankle problem that may or may not have been a byproduct of last year’s season-ending mishap. Murphy’s recovery was slower than expected, forcing him to miss the first 10 weeks of the season. Zimmerman has been out since mid-May with an oblique issue, and Rendon missed three weeks with a broken toe. Through it all, nobody panicked.
Just wait until they get healthy, or so went the refrain.
Well, it’s almost July now, and even though Washington’s lineup is as healthy as it’s been in a while, the offense is still stuck in neutral. Despite the fact that Rendon, Eaton and Murphy are all back, the Nats are averaging just 3.8 runs per game in June, which ranks 23rd in the majors. Including Rendon’s solo homer on Thursday, they’ve hit a grand total of 10 jacks on the month, tied for the fewest in baseball. They’ve been shut out four times in their last 10 games, a stretch during which they’ve managed just three wins and fallen from a half-game ahead of the Braves in the NL East to 3 1/2 games back.
There’s no denying that Harper’s struggles are at the root of Washington’s offensive woes. After a strong April, he’s fallen off a cliff. Entering play on Thursday, he was hitting just .209 on the season and has looked like a shell of himself at the plate. Even though he still leads the National League in home runs (19), he had struck out 51 times and drawn just 15 walks since the beginning of May.
Adding to Washington’s woes is the fact that even though Murphy and Eaton are back, they’re not all the way back. Eaton sat out Thursday, the third time in 10 days that he hasn’t started, as the club makes a conscious effort to ease him back into everyday mode. Murphy, who is 3-for-30 since returning and has looked generally un-Murphy like at the dish, got a breather on Thursday too. The result was a lineup that had a 19-year old batting cleanup (rookie Juan Soto) and one of baseball’s coldest hitters in the leadoff spot (Harper).
As it turned out, said 19-year-old and said ice-cold hitter proved to be the difference. Harper, batting leadoff for the first time in a month and a half because manager Davey Martinez hoped it would help him be more patient and therefore snap him out of his massive slump, looked as comfortable as he has in weeks. He walked twice, hit a sac fly and laced a double down the right-field line to start the winning rally in the eighth inning. Three batters later, Soto — who has been Washington’s most dependable hitter by far since getting called up from Double-A a month ago — slashed an opposite-field double to the gap in left-center, driving in Harper and Rendon to put the Nats over the top.
Until that rally, it looked as if the Nats’ anemic offense might waste yet another strong performance by Max Scherzer. In his last two outings, the reigning Cy Young winner had allowed a combined four earned runs on eight hits, yet he’d been tagged with two losses as Washington was shut out by the Giants and Blue Jays. On Thursday, it was more of the same. Despite fanning nine, walking one and yielding just a pair of runs, Scherzer exited with the game tied and picked up a no-decision. Not that he cared one bit.
“Hey, we won the ballgame,” said the veteran righty, who allowed multiple home runs for the first time this season. “That’s what matters.”
Indeed, they did win the ballgame. And the series. But against a lowly Orioles squad that has the worst record in the majors, it was way harder than it should be. And that’s because, for the Nationals, scoring runs continues to be way harder than it should be.