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STEVE DESHAZO: Nats’ woes are at plate, not mound
WASHINGTON—Sure, the Washington Nationals could use Stephen Strasburg’s arm right now. But his bat might help even more.
While the baseball world debates the effect of the Strasburg shutdown on the Nationals’ 2–1 deficit in the National League Division Series, there’s an even bigger crisis brewing: their futility at the plate.
In three games against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Nationals are an anemic 3 for 24 with runners in scoring position. That includes an 0 for 8 effort in yesterday’s listless 8–0 loss that left Washington one loss away from the end of a historic season.
“You would have liked to get a hit early to put us up,” right fielder Jayson Werth said, “but we didn’t. We got down and we never battled back.”
Pitching was the Nationals’ calling card all season, but once their everyday lineup got healthy, their bats awakened; they averaged more than five runs a game after the All-Star break. But if not for a two-run bloop pinch single by Tyler Moore in the eighth inning of the first game, this series might already be over.
For most of the Nationals, this is their first taste of postseason play, where everything is magnified.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that things haven’t come quite as easily against the defending World Series champions as they did during the regular season, when Washington won 98 games, as many as any team in baseball. Pressure rises, the competition is tougher, and every at bat is magnified.
“It is different than anything you’ve been a part of if it’s your first postseason,” said Cardinals third baseman David Freese, last year’s World Series MVP “It affects everyone differently, but you’ve got to come to the yard ready for anything. I think pitchers take every pitch more seriously, and when you get a mistake, you’ve got to do something with it.”
The Nationals haven’t so far. They left 11 runners on base Wednesday against former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter and two relievers, running their three-game total to 30. Left fielder Michael Morse was the worst offender, striking out with men on first and third to end the first inning and leaving the bases loaded with a fly out in the fifth.
A record crowd of 45,017 played hooky on a glorious fall day to observe D.C.’s first postseason game in 79 years. But, as Werth said, “We didn’t give them anything to get excited about.”
That’s why the running joke is that Strasburg—who hit .277 while winning 15 games before reaching his post-elbow-surgery innings limit—might be more handy as a batter than a pitcher, as some pundits have speculated. Even he couldn’t have won more than one game in this series, though—and wouldn’t have done that if his team didn’t get him a run or two.
Aside from shortstop Ian Desmond (who’s 7 for 12 in the series) and Moore’s clutch single in the opener, the Nationals haven’t gotten a meaningful hit in a series in which they’ve been outscored 22–7. And even Desmond doesn’t have an RBI. They’re not the first team to face the culture shock of playoff baseball, but they’re Exhibit A at the moment.
“I don’t attribute it to being young or inexperienced,” veteran Washington manager Davey Johnson said. “I just tip my hat to the other guys.”
Fair enough. But the future of the franchise, 19-year-old Bryce Harper, is 1 for 15 in his first three meaningful October games after going 0 for 5 Wednesday. Harper has been under the weather, but he insisted: “I felt fine today. I just missed some pitches.”
Werth has served as Harper’s guru and big brother for most of his rookie season. “It’s real easy to sit back and point out one thing: ’He’s pressing, this is too big for [Harper],’” he said. “But I believe in the kid. I really do. If tomorrow he goes without any hits, I’ll bet on him the next day.”
There may be only one day left in the Nationals’ season, thanks to their drought at the plate.
Werth, who knows the value of maintaining a young team’s morale in turbulent times, sat calmly in front of his locker in a quiet clubhouse, radiating confidence. He’s aware that the Nationals have faced little adversity in 2012, leading the NL East for all but 10 days, and he doesn’t want them to start pressing now.
“I really don’t feel too bad about the spot we’re in,” he said.
But doesn’t every team have to have its feet held to the fire before it becomes a champion?
“I don’t know if you need it,” Werth said, “but we’ll be put to the test tomorrow.”
Steve DeShazo: 540/374-5443