Last night's 2-hit effort against Justin Masterson and the Indians (ultimately resulting in a 2-1, walk-off loss) was about as weak an offensive showing as we've seen this year out of the Nationals, made all the more frustrating by the fact Gio Gonzalez's gem of a start was wasted thanks to lack of run support.
Not to completely take away from Masterson, who was brilliant himself over seven innings, but the Nationals didn't exactly put up a competitive fight against Cleveland's starter. The right-hander had two excellent pitches working all night: a heavy sinker that he kept pounding down and in on right-handed batters, and a sharp-bending slider that he kept mixing in on the other side of the strike zone.
But that's all Masterson had. He kept throwing the same two pitches throughout the game, and there didn't appear to be much (if any) adjustment taking place in the batter's box. At-bats in the seventh inning looked very much like at-bats in the second inning, with Nats hitters getting behind in the count and then chasing strike three pitches on the corners.
Some of this remains a function of the depleted lineup Davey Johnson is throwing out there on a nightly basis. Bryce Harper's absence continues to loom large, and there's nothing anybody can do to replace the star 20-year-old. Wilson Ramos' prolonged absence also has been a significant factor, with Kurt Suzuki having posted a paltry .187/.228/.213 slash line since his fellow catcher went back on the disabled list May 16.
The lack of offense has led Johnson to reconfigure his lineup in recent days in an attempt to lengthen it and offer some glimmer of pop in its lower half. But that hasn't necessarily worked, and it's perhaps created an unnecessary hole near the top of the lineup.
Jayson Werth suddenly finds himself hitting fourth or fifth every day, not an ideal spot for him. At this stage of his career, the veteran outfielder is a much better table-setter than run-producer, and this move down a couple of spots in the lineup seems only to have made him try to change his approach in a failed attempt to drive in runs instead of score them.
In six games since the switch, Werth is 5-for-22 with a double and six strikeouts. That includes an 0-for-13 slump he'll carry into tonight's game at Progressive Field. The Nationals' replacement No. 2 hitters over those six games (Roger Bernadina, Steve Lombardozzi and Jeff Kobernus) aren't nearly as accomplished as Werth.
And it didn't help last night to be playing in an American League park. Plenty of NL managers would salivate at the opportunity to use the DH to add another potent bat to their lineup, but Johnson simply doesn't have nine productive hitters right now to fill out a full AL lineup card.
So he instead used this as an opportunity to give Ryan Zimmerman a semi-day-off, letting him DH last night, and as an opportunity to give Chad Tracy several at-bats in the hopes the extra reps might help the veteran finally get going at the plate.
Neither worked. Zimmerman went 1-for-4 but struck out twice and stranded three men on base. Tracy, meanwhile, went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and now finds himself hitting .131 for the season.
There's no magic button Johnson can push to jump-start his lineup, short of waiting for Harper and Ramos to return from the DL. He can hope a right-handed-heavy lineup featuring Anthony Rendon and possibly Kobernus and/or Chris Marrero will do more damage tonight against lefty Scott Kazmir, but that's a lot of pressure to throw on some young and unproven guys.
For better or worse, these are the guys who are going to be swinging the bat for the Nationals for the immediate future. It's up to them to start putting together better at-bats and at cobble together a couple of runs, hoping the pitching staff can do the rest.