First, the Nationals sit 2 ½ games back of the Braves in the National League East. Much of last year we would have gladly seen the Tigers improve to this position. The Tigers have shown the difference 10 games can make, and the Nationals are just one hot streak away from first place. They have not faced exceptionally difficult opposition, struggled at home or on the road, or appeared unlucky in close games. While they are 2 games above .500, they have allowed more runs than they have scored. The scoring part of the equation is the key, as only the Marlins and Dodgers have more anemic offenses. The Astros score more runs than the Nationals!
Denard Span leads off. His on-base percentage is a decent 0.346, higher than it has been since 2009 and nearly the equal of Austin Jackson. He will likely have more doubles going forward, but in general he is doing his job. Jayson Werth was batting second but took the weekend off to rest a hamstring. He is expected back but may drop in the lineup. Werth is 34 years old and playing like he did in 2011 when Washington regretted his $126 million contract, so it is not reasonable to expect significant improvement. Bryce Harper bats third and is a beast, but will not likely sustain a 2012 Mike Trout imitation all season.
Ryan Zimmerman is back and batting fourth. Can you believe this is already his 9th season? He is under-performing in all areas so I would anticipate a hot streak, except that his slump could be related to injuries. They put him on the disabled list ostensibly because of a bad hamstring, but he was clearly struggling to throw across the diamond. Whether a leg or arm or both are causing trouble, this could be the source of his power outage and not subject to mean regression. Adam LaRoche is slotted fifth. There was concern in the off-season when the Nationals were late to re-sign him as a free agent since he led the team with 33 home runs last year. But he has played 10 seasons and is 34 years old, and 2012 was the only year he was above average. He will improve from his current production, but Baseball Reference claims the most similar batter to LaRoche is Tony Clark.
Sixth is Ian Desmond, who blossomed into an all star last year and is currently leading the league in doubles. He batted second over the weekend, look for this to continue. But Desmond could be having his typical season, with 2012 a career year. Danny Espinsoa bats seventh, he should improve but his glove provides his value. Kurt Suzuki catches and bats eighth, putting up numbers that exceed his best season. He should slip a little. The best news for the Nationals about the pitcher batting ninth is that it means the Tigers will be without Victor Martinez in the starting lineup.
So the Nationals are what they are. They are not as young as you might think, and a few career years may have provided unreasonable expectations. The pitching is phenomenal, let’s see if it can slow down the Tigers’ hot offense.