When the Washington Nationals had the best record in the National League last year, it shocked many people. In the postseason, the Nationals ran into a buzz saw in the St. Louis Cardinals, who stopped the Nats from advancing beyond the 2012 NL Division Series. Despite the disappointing end, skipper Davey Johnson earned his second Manager of the Year Award.
The Nationals haven't hit their stride so far this season. While they are currently in second place in the NL East, a half-game back of the Atlanta Braves, they have the ability to play much better than they have.
Although the Nationals have Bryce Harper, the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year at the age of 19, they have struggled offensively -- entering Sunday with the 13th most runs in the league. As with most young teams, the Nationals don't have a good overall batting average or on-base percentage. When a team can't reach base regularly, it doesn't ignite rallies or score much. No matter how fantastic the pitching staff is, if a team doesn't put runs on the board, it won't win many games.
Since the Nats don't have much power -- ranking ninth in the league in home runs -- the Nationals need to decrease their strikeouts and increase their walks.
The 20-year-old Harper leads the Nats in many offensive categories. Keeping him on the field, however, has been a problem. He plays with an intensity that excites the fans but leads to injuries. In Monday's 6-2 win over the Dodgers, Harper collided with the right-field scoreboard on the outfield wall at Dodger Stadium, cutting his neck and causing overall body aches. It's unlikely Harper will curtail his all-out play, so he may get hurt regularly.
The Nationals' starting pitchers have been stellar so far, posting the NL's second-best ERA (3.07) through 43 games. Everyone knows about the brilliance of Stephen Strasburg, who has struggled early on this season. However, the emergence of Jordan Zimmermann as the Nationals' young ace has lessened the burden on Strasburg. The starting rotation also has Dan Haren, who didn't deserve to lose on Tuesday but was outpitched by L.A.'s Clayton Kershaw, plus Gio Gonzalez, a 21-game winner in '12.
The Nats' bullpen, unfortunately, hasn't been as good as the team had hoped. The relief corps has the seventh-best ERA in the league (3.49). It should improve as the season progresses, though.
Defense has also been an issue early, as Washington has committed a Major League-high 36 errors. It's amazing the Nationals are even competitive with such a leaky defense.
Having a poor defense puts much more stress on the pitching staff. Pitching to contact is popular nowadays because getting either a groundout or flyout takes fewer pitches than getting a strikeout. With the importance of pitch counts, a starter who can retire batters with a limited number of pitches can remain in a game longer. This saves the bullpen, usually filled with weaker pitching than the starting rotation.
The Nationals miss the contributions of Jayson Werth, too. He went on the disabled list on April 14 with a pulled hamstring. Since signing a big contract just before the 2011 season, Werth has been a disappointment. He has struggled at the plate, instead of providing the offensive stability the Nats were expecting in the middle of their lineup.
In this, his final season as a Major League skipper, Johnson wants to finish his distinguished managerial career with a trip to the World Series. After an excellent playing career, including a year in which he hit 42 home runs as a second baseman, Johnson took his knowledge of statistics (he has a math degree from Trinity University) to the dugout.
The highlight, obviously, was guiding the 1986 New York Mets to a World Series championship. He has known mostly success. Prior to managing the Dodgers in 1999, Johnson had never piloted a team to a losing record. Between the time that the Dodgers let him go and when he accepted the Nationals job in the middle of the 2011 season, he had done several things -- including designing a golf course and teaching skiing.
If anyone can guide the young Nats to a memorable season, Johnson can.
Sarah D. Morris can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.