Its a long season. The Nats swept the Braves in Atlanta last year in May and the Brave still won 94 games. This isn’t the end of the world.
Each of the 3 losses this weekend exposed some very specific issues with the team and its manager that aren’t necessarily new, but which are coming to the foreground. In order:
Friday’s Loss: Over-managing the Pitching Staff: Once again Davey Johnson pulled a highly effective starter on a miniscule pitch count only to watch his bullpen blow up. Worse, this is the second straight time its happened to Ross Detwiler, who now has given up exactly one earned run in 13 innings (on a solo homer) and has two No Decisions for his efforts. No wonder he was visibly frustrated when told he wasn’t going back out. I defended the decision to pull Strasburg after 80 pitches on opening day in various forums, but I cannot defend the decisions now, knowing that our bullpen was DEAD LAST in the majors in ERA heading into the weekend (I believe they’ve “improved” to 29th by the time of this posting).
I think Johnson has to start relying on his starters to go deeper into games until the bullpen sorts itself out. Or, to put it differently, I don’t want to see a starter yanked unless he’s sitting on 115 pitches or the lineup is getting ready to turn over a 4th time. It just does not make sense to pull an effective starter after 90 pitches right now.
Saturday’s Loss: Zimmerman’s Worsening Throwing Arm. We’re 12 games into the 2013 season and Ryan Zimmerman already has 3 throwing errors. His throwing error on Friday contributed to the collapse but his air-mailing the throw saturday on a simple, routine play directly led to two unearned runs and a deflating feeling for the Nats. Opposing scouts are starting to openly question why the Nats are keeping Zimmerman at the position, after watching his throws. I don’t know if he’s still hurt, if he’s got a Chuck Knoblock mental thing going on, or if he’s just spent far too much time trying to mechanically fix the issue instead of just being a natural athlete, but it isn’t working. Strasburg’s line on Saturday: 6IP, 5 hits, 7 Ks, 0 earned runs … and a Loss. I know this game isn’t entirely on Zimmerman; you have to score to win, but giving a bulldog veteran like Tim Hudson (and his amazing career record when given a lead) 2 free runs is never a good idea.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing the team can really do about this. You can’t sit your #4 hitter (despite how crummy he’s hitting; see the next point). There’s no place to stick him now or in the immediate future thanks to the Adam LaRoche re-signing blocking 1B for the next two years. And he’s a $100M player who clearly isn’t playing like one.
Sunday’s Loss: Where’s the offense? I know the team generally is doing pretty well; we’re middle of the league right now in terms of Homers, BA, and OPS. But most of that is thanks to Bryce Harper’s fast start. We have two key middle-of-the-order guys who are just not getting it done. Specifically, LaRoche and Zimmerman. You just cannot win consistently with your middle of the order guys hitting .147 and .220 respectively. To make matters worse, there seems to be no hope in sight for Danny Espinosa, and with a MLB-ready guy who had a great spring and is lighting up AA in Anthony Rendon seemingly an able replacement, you have to wonder how long the team is going to let their #7 hitter continue to hit .175 with a known tear in his shoulder. Paul Maholm is a decent pitcher … but he’s not Cy Young. He went 7+ and gave up just four measly hits on the afternoon in a game where the Nats looked like they gave up frankly. One more throwing error tossed in by Zimmerman for good measure.
We didn’t really even talk about how the Nats had the distinct Starting Pitching matchup advantage in all three games but lost them all. Sometimes your aces just get whacked (Strasburg in Cincinnati, Gonzalez on Sunday); you have to roll with it and try to outscore your opponent in those games.
Nor have we talked about concerns with the bullpen; what is going on with Clippard and Storen? But the Bullpen is one of those areas that can look really bad with a couple of small sample sized bad outings, so we won’t over-react too much.
But, I think there’s some concerns here that are a bit above those of the “well its just mid April” variety.