Nats' moves haven't gone as planned
Injuries to several key players hurt Washington in first half
WASHINGTON -- Nationals manager Manny Acta didn't think he had to worry about his offense in 2008 because of the moves general manager Jim Bowden made in the offseason.
Bowden acquired outfielders Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge through trades and signed catcher Paul Lo Duca via free agency. Add Austin Kearns, Nick Johnson and Ryan Zimmerman to the mix, and one would think that the Nationals would have an impressive lineup.
But the Nats' offense sputtered throughout the first half. It ranked last in almost every offensive category, including batting average and runs scored. All-Star shortstop Cristian Guzman was the only position player who was consistent with the bat, while Johnson and Dukes were the only ones who showed any patience at the plate. Both Johnson and Dukes are on the disabled list, while Johnson will likely not return this season.
Hurting for runs, Acta even put Guzman in the No. 3 hole in the lineup toward the end of the first half, despite the fact that Guzman has never been a person who can drive in runs and is usually hitting leadoff or second.
"He's not your ideal third hitter, but he's our best hitter," Acta said. "It's the fact of trying to find guys on the top in front of Guzman and guys behind Guzman. We are trying to find a combination that will help us score some runs. It's tough.
"There is so much we can do. We work hard and the desire is there, but things are not happening. We have to show up every day, work hard and things will get better.
Asked not too long ago why Guzman was the only player who was hitting all season, Nationals hitting coach Lenny Harris indicated that players are young and still learning in the big leagues.
"You have guys 22, 23 years old and learning how to play in this level," Harris said. "Guzman has been around for a while. He has been playing a lot of baseball and he learns a lot. These guys are going through what Guzman has already been through. A lot of guys have to catch up."
|NATIONALS TOP PERFORMANCES|
3/30, WAS 3, ATL 2 -- Presidential pitch
President Bush throws out the ceremonial first pitch before the inaugural game at Nationals Park.
3/30, WAS 3, ATL 2 -- Opening Night walk-off
Ryan Zimmerman helps christen Nationals Park with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth inning.
5/15, WAS 1, NYM 0 -- Harris saves the day
Left fielder Willie Harris makes a full extension on a potentially game-saving catch against the Mets.
6/5, WAS 10, STL 9 -- Dukes delivers walk-off
Trailing by a run in the ninth after squandering a large early lead, Elijah Dukes caps a day-night twin bill with a dramatic two-run walk-off blast.
6/25, WAS 5, LAA 4 -- Boone's milestone
Aaron Boone hustles out an infield hit to become the fourth member of the Boone family to reach 1,000 hits.
But Dmitri Young, Ronnie Belliard and Felipe Lopez are veterans, and they hardly made any contributions during the first half. Despite questions raised by the local media and fans from message boards, Bowden has already said that Harris is part of the long-term solution, and Acta said the lack of offense is not Harris' fault.
"You can't blame Lenny for our hitting woes," Acta said. "He hasn't had our full lineup the whole time. I know those guys were not hitting early in the year, but he works hard. I can't pinpoint why those guys are not hitting."
Getting a healthy Dukes and Zimmerman, who is on the disabled list because of a torn left labrum, would make a difference to the ballclub. While he's not a home run hitter, Zimmerman is a major run producer. The Nationals are hoping that he'll be back in action in late July or early August.
"My impression is he will be back relatively soon," said Dr. Timothy Kremchek, the Reds' medical director. "If he struggles and his mechanics change, then you can shut him down to what needs to be done for him, possibly surgically, but probably not.
"But the Nationals' training staff have done a great job with him. He feels so good. I'm very optimistic about him having non-operative therapy and treatment, and that he's back with the Nationals after his rehab assignments relatively soon."
During Zimmerman's absence, Dukes assumed the role as the Nats' best player, but he went down with a right knee injury on July 5. He could be back by late August.
"[Dukes] played very well for us," Acta said. "The way our offense is going, he is going to be missed."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.