Why are the Nationals struggling?
Well, coming into today, the Nats are exactly .500 at 37-37, and after losing 7-6 to the Rockies, are now back below .500. While the team hasn't fallen completely flat in the face of expectations like the Angels and Dodgers, the Nats definitely didn't see being only .500 and 5 games back of Atlanta this far into the season. So, what has gone wrong?
The obvious and biggest reason is the offense. The Nationals can not score runs. They average just 3.47 runs a game, worse than every team in the majors except Miami. Their OBP as a team is a mere .290, again worse than every team except the Marlins. The lineup was never considered the strength of the team, but it definitely wasn't expected to be this bad. No one with the exception of Bryce Harper has hit above expectations, and he's been hurt for a month now. They've gotten nothing from catcher (Kurt Suzuki: .215/.282/.311) or second base (Danny Espinosa: .158/.193/.272 and demoted). Their main acquisition in the lineup hasn't worked out yet either. Denard Span was supposed to be the perfect guy to lead off, but he's hitting just .255/.310/.345 and has become completely useless against lefties, something that wasn't the case in Minnesota. Everyone in DC is waiting with baited breath for Harper to come back, and with good reason. Even at 20 years old, his bat is desperately needed.
The pitching is doing fine for Washington, fifth in the NL in runs allowed, but there are still issues. Again the #1 problem is an offseason acquisition. Dan Haren was a risk at $13 million for this year, but so far it's turned out even worse than expected. Haren was shelled again yesterday and now has a 6.15 ERA. Today he was put on the DL with an undisclosed injury. He's been the black mark on a rotation that's been as good as advertised otherwise. Jordan Zimmermann has become the true ace of the staff, Stephen Strasburg has a 2.40 ERA despite the chaos surrounding him, and Gio Gonzalez and Ross Detwiler have been good as well. This is where the Nats can hang their hat on if their offense ever gets going.
Is there something else going wrong though? Remember that everything went right for the Nationals last season, at least until the 9th inning of Game 5 of the NLDS. This is the first year this team has had to deal with pressure, with expectations. Jayson Werth said something of a similar vein this week:
"Last year, we cruised. You don’t learn how to win that way. So when you get into those big games in September and in the playoffs, when you’ve led wire-to-wire and you cruised into the finish line, you never really had to work for anything. But [this year] I feel like, if we’re going to win it, we’re going to have to work for a lot.”
It sounds ridiculous on its face, but if you think about, it makes a little bit of sense. These are human beings playing this game, and when you face real pressure for the first time, you get tight sometimes. That could be what has happened so far with the Nationals. There are reasons for hope in DC though. Bryce Harper will eventually get back. Anthony Rendon has replaced Espinosa at second and has impressed with the bat. Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman (albeit with throwing issues at third) have been solid. The bench bats, who have been awful this year, can only get better as the year continues. However, they have put themselves in a hole in the first half of the season, and will need to figure out soon in order to have any chance of meeting the high expectations that were set for them.