Associated Press photo
Derek Jeter scores on Mark Teixeira's first-inning sacrifice fly.
That they could own baseball's fourth-best record in mid-June despite their two best offensive players from 2011 collectively hitting .225 with three homers, 26 RBI and a paltry .604 OPS is downright remarkable.
For much of the last 2 1/2 months, the Nationals have managed to win games in spite of that lack of production from the heart of their lineup, specifically Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse. Eventually, though, manager Davey Johnson knew he was going to need to count on those big bats producing in big spots, and it finally happened this weekend.
In dropping three straight games to the Yankees -- including Sunday's 4-1 series finale -- the Nationals scored a total of six runs. The biggest culprits: Zimmerman and Morse, who went a combined 4-for-26 with one RBI.
How difficult is it to beat the beasts of the AL East with so little offense generated from those two?
"It makes it hard, unfortunately," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "Really, it's been the story of the year. We haven't had our whole lineup going yet and we're still in pretty good shape. All that comes back to our pitching. Which has been great. And I thought they were pretty good these three days. We just did nothing for them."
All things considered, the Nationals couldn't be disappointed with their pitching performance against a fearsome New York lineup. Their starters posted a 3.50 ERA in the series and gave their team a chance to win each of these three games.
But their lineup couldn't seize the opportunities, and the team as a whole paid the price for it.
"Offensively we're just coming up a little short," Johnson said. "Only thing that really concerns me: We've got to get Zim going. Need to get Zim in a happy place."
Zimmerman has been anything but happy during what has been a surprisingly frustrating 2 1/2 months on an individual level despite his team's overall success. The foundation of the Nationals' lineup through six previous lean years, he's become one of its biggest liabilities.
The low point may well have come Sunday during an 0-for-4 afternoon that saw Zimmerman see a total of only seven pitches from New York right-hander Ivan Nova. He swung and missed one of those pitches, fouled off one, took two called strikes and made outs on the remaining three.
The end result: Zimmerman, a career .288 hitter with a .479 slugging percentage entering 2012, is now batting .229 with a .323 slugging percentage.
"Obviously I'm not doing as well as I want to," he said. "I think any time you're not getting hits like that, something has to change. I've just got to keep working hard and keep doing the same things I've done my whole career, and it'll turn around. The worst thing you can do is panic and try to change everything. We've still got three-and-a-half, four months left, and I plan to continue to work and work out of this thing and help us win more games."
Zimmerman missed two weeks in late-April and early-May with a sprained right shoulder, but he insists he's healthy now. Besides, he always said the injury affected him only in the field, not at the plate.
So what's causing this dramatic drop-off in offensive production?
"I don't know," Johnson said. "He's such a great athlete and such a talented player, I haven't had much conversation with him about it. "But [this week] I'm going to sit down with him and try to figure it out."
Morse has more of a built-in excuse, having only returned two weeks ago from a 2-month stint on the DL with a torn lat muscle. Still, the man who led the Nationals with 31 homers, 95 RBI and a .303 average one year ago understands he needs to start contributing soon.
"I feel great. I feel good," he said. "I'm just not getting what I wish would happen, but it will come."
The Nationals would have loved for those lineup stalwarts to locate their mojo over the weekend during what was a highly anticipated series that drew three straight sellout crowds to South Capitol Street.
It didn't happen, and so the bitter taste of a series sweep will be left in everyone's mouths until they return to the field Tuesday night against the Rays.
In the bigger picture, though, the Nationals seem to understand this weekend didn't make or break their season. Thanks to the foibles of the Braves, Mets, Marlins and Phillies, they still emerge with a four-game lead in the division.
"We're in first place for a reason," Morse said. "We've battled our butts off all year, and we're going to continue to do that."
Not that anyone was trying to take this thumping at the hands of the big, bad Yankees a learning experience. As Zimmerman put it: "I think this team is past that kind of stuff."
Besides, a three-game losing streak in June means little to a ballclub that has lofty expectations for itself.
"It's not October yet," rookie Bryce Harper said. "That's how you look at it. It's not October yet. We've still got a long season. We've still got a lot of games left."