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Sweep exposes Nats' lineup woes

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Sweep exposes Nats' lineup woes

That the Nationals could get swept by the Yankees over a frustrating week of baseball and still emerge holding a four-game lead in the NL East is a tribute to how far this organization has come.

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 12 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 12 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."

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Nationals' Joe Ross to start against team that drafted him

Nationals' Joe Ross to start against team that drafted him

WASHINGTON -- On Dec. 19, 2014, the San Diego Padres traded pitcher Joe Ross and a player to be named later -- it would be Trea Turner -- to the Washington Nationals in a three-team deal that included the Tampa Bay Rays.

Since that trade, the Padres have posted a record of 160-215 while the Nationals are 208-166 after they won 3-0 Saturday as Stephen Strasburg struck out a career-high 15 batters in seven innings and the Washington staff fanned 17.

As a reminder of what could have been, Ross (2-0, 5.32) makes the start Sunday against San Diego right-hander Jhoulys Chacin (4-4, 5.74) in the finale of the three-game series at Nationals Park.

First-place Washington is 30-18 while last-place San Diego is 18-33.

Ross was drafted by the Padres in the first round out of his California high school in 2011. Ross is 2-0 in his career against San Diego with a 2.25 ERA in two starts. Last year, he went six innings and allowed six hits and three earned runs in a win against the Padres.

"I was not around Joe at all," said Andy Green, in his second year as the San Diego manager. "We saw him last year; he is a sinkerballer."

The Padres did acquire All-Star first baseman Wil Myers in the trade.

The Nationals have scored a record 62 runs in the four starts made this year by Ross, more than any other pitcher has received in his first four starts of a season. That included a 23-5 victory at home April 30 against the New York Mets and a 10-1 win Tuesday against the Seattle Mariners.

Ross, who broke into the majors with the Nationals in 2015, was in the rotation last season and made 19 starts before going on the disabled list. He was in line to be the No. 5 starter, but began the season at Triple-A Syracuse.

Chacin is 3-2 in six starts against Washington and has a 3.09 ERA. He has made three career starts at Nationals Park and is 1-1 with a 0.45 ERA while allowing only one run in 20 innings.

The Nationals played their second game in a row Saturday without second baseman Daniel Murphy, who was ill.

Nationals bench coach Chris Speier, filling in for manager Dusty Baker, said before the game that Murphy was ill. Murphy entered the day hitting .316 with nine homers and 33 RBIs.

"He's available. This is Dusty's theory: Usually when somebody comes in and says, 'I'm ready,' then he usually gives him one more day. But he's available," Speier told reporters before the game.

Murphy entered Saturday seventh in the National League in hits with 56, just ahead of teammate Bryce Harper (55). Murphy was also among the league leaders in multi-hit games and road batting average.

Washington shortstop Turner, drafted by the Padres in the first round out of North Carolina State, had two hits, including a homer, Friday and was 1-for-4 Saturday.

Another hot hitter for Washington is center fielder Michael A. Taylor, who hit a homer for the second day in a row Saturday and has four homers in his last 14 games.

"I'm looking for my pitch and staying in my zone," Taylor said. "I'm not trying to do too much."

MORE NATIONALS: Stephen Strasburg has career-high 15 strikeouts in Nationals win over Padres

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Stephen Strasburg has career-high 15 strikeouts in Nationals win over Padres

Stephen Strasburg has career-high 15 strikeouts in Nationals win over Padres

WASHINGTON -- Stephen Strasburg downplayed any notion that starting pitchers on the same team attempt to top each other. On the mound one day after Max Scherzer overwhelmed the San Diego Padres, the right-hander did just that.

Strasburg dominated San Diego with a career-high 15 strikeouts while allowing three hits over seven innings as the Washington Nationals beat the Padres 3-0 on Saturday.

Strasburg (6-1) singled and scored Washington's first run on Bryce Harper's RBI fielder's choice grounder in the third inning. Michael A. Taylor hit a two-run homer for the second consecutive game.

San Diego's lineup offered little resistance against Strasburg the day after Scherzer struck out 13 in Washington's 5-1 win.

"Piece of cake, huh?" cracked Chris Speier, who is serving as acting manager with Dusty Baker away this weekend to attend his son Darren's high school graduation in California.

San Diego had six hits and struck out 31 times -- 17 Saturday -- in the two losses.

"I know when you have those type of combinations," Speier said of Strasburg and Scherzer, "they feed off each other. There's a little competitiveness within the starting pitchers that is very healthy. . It's win-win for us."

With four pitches working, Strasburg struck out the side in the third and sixth and had at least two in each of the first six innings. His single matched the Padres' hit total through five innings.

Strasburg previously struck out 14 batters twice including his Major League debut on June 8, 2010. He set a personal best by setting down Franchy Cordero in the seventh.

"It's pretty cool, but there's another game 5, 6 days from now," said the low-key pitcher. "Maybe I'll enjoy it tonight, but back to work tomorrow."

The San Diego native is 6-1 with a 2.93 ERA for his career against his hometown team.

Matt Albers pitched the eighth and Koda Glover the ninth for his fifth save.

Clayton Richard (3-6) followed up his complete-game victory over the Diamondbacks on May 21 by allowing three runs and 10 hits over six innings.

One out after Anthony Rendon's leadoff single in the sixth, Taylor drove a pitch over the wall in center field for his fourth homer of the season.

"You stay in a one-run game, momentum's different," a frustrated Richard stated. "We have a different attitude, it changes a lot of things."

Washington has won two straight and five of six.

San Diego is 5-13 since May 9.

San Diego loaded the bases with one out in the first following a single, a throwing error by first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and Cory Spangenberg's four-pitch walk. Strasburg ended the threat by striking out Austin Hedges on three pitches.

The Padres had two singles in the sixth, but Strasburg recorded strikeouts for the final two outs.

"Sometimes with the best pitchers in the game if you don't get them in the first three innings they get harder and harder to get to," Padres manager Andy Green said. "We had our chance in the first we didn't take advantage of it."

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