What’s wrong with the Nationals? 4 biggest problems team has had in 2021

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What’s wrong with the Nats? 4 biggest problems they've had originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

The Nationals entered the 2021 season with World Series aspirations, hoping to bounce back and compete for a playoff spot after missing the cut in the shortened 2020 campaign. However, the new calendar year has produced similar results.

Heading into play Wednesday, the Nationals are seven games back of the New York Mets in the NL East and nine and a half games out of a Wild Card spot. A coronavirus outbreak in the clubhouse forced the team to begin the season without a chunk of its roster and that buried them early, but wins have still been difficult to come by even as the club got healthy.

“We got to go. It’s go-time,” manager Davey Martinez said on a Zoom call Thursday. “We’re in June. The weather is good. It’s hot. Our guys are all healthy and fresh for the most part. Like I said, we got to get some consistency in our lineup and just start hitting the ball like we’re capable of hitting. I know we can hit. There’s no doubt about it.”

Yet hitting isn’t the only problem that’s plagued the Nationals this season. Here are four that must be fixed for the team to post another remarkable turnaround:

Falling behind early

The problems begin early in games. Nationals pitchers have compiled a 4.74 ERA in the first three innings of games this season, fourth-worst in the NL. The offense hasn’t been immune, either; Washington has scored 78 runs in the first three frames — also fourth-worst in the NL.

But for a team so deeply invested in its starting rotation, the onus falls on the pitching staff to get the Nationals off to good starts. Max Scherzer ($34.5M salary in 2021) has been as advertised this season, but Stephen Strasburg ($35M) hasn’t been able to stay on the field and Patrick Corbin ($24.4M) has the highest first-inning ERA in baseball at 9.82.

Behind those top three arms, the Nationals still haven’t found much success. Jon Lester is averaging fewer than five innings per start. Erick Fedde, currently on the COVID Injured List, hasn’t appeared in a game in three weeks since entering quarantine. Joe Ross has yet to string together consecutive quality starts.

If the Nationals have any hope of turning their season around, their path to success begins and ends with the starting rotation.

Situational hitting

On offense, Washington’s struggles can’t be attributed to just one or two players. Their problem has been coming through in key situations.

The Nationals have driven in 138 runs with runners in scoring position, fourth-fewest in all of baseball. They also have the lowest batting average (.145) and OPS (.468) in the majors with the bases loaded while striking out in 20 of 61 such plate appearances.

Need a sacrifice fly? The Nationals rank last in fly ball rate (27.9%) with runners in scoring position. Trying to get a rally started? They are one of 10 teams with sub-.300 on-base percentage when leading off an inning. Fallen behind and in need of a comeback? Only six clubs have a lower OPS when trailing in a game.

Overall, the Nationals rank 16th in OPS (.699) and among the top 10 in both batting average (.246) and on-base percentage (.317). Those numbers just don’t tell the whole story.

Home runs

When a ball leaves the yard during a Nationals game, it’s typically not going in their favor. The Nationals have hit the fifth-fewest long balls (55) while tying for the sixth-most allowed (75).

On offense, the Nationals average 38.3 plate appearances between home runs. For comparison, the Braves lead the majors at 24.3 while league average is 33.4. That’s not to say Washington doesn’t have home run hitters. Trea Turner currently leads the club with 10 homers, followed by Kyle Schwarber (nine), Josh Bell (eight) and Juan Soto (seven).

Beyond them, no one other than the part-time Ryan Zimmerman offers much power at the plate. Victor Robles slimmed down over the offseason to focus on using his legs to create plays rather than swing for the fences. Starlin Castro came to D.C. on the heels of a home run surge in Miami but has been unable to replicate that success. Neither Josh Harrison nor Yan Gomes have ever been much of power threats throughout their careers.

As for the pitching, all six of the Nationals’ starters this season are averaging at least one home run allowed per nine innings. The bullpen as a whole has posted a 1.1 HR/9 as well. Limiting these home runs (and hitting a few more themselves) would go a long way toward keeping games closer the rest of the season.

Beating the division

The Nationals are 9-13 against opponents from their division so far this season, which stands as the worst interdivisional record in the NL East. They’ve won just one series against an NL East team all year, sweeping the Marlins in early May. The only other team with a losing record against the division is the Phillies, who are 15-17 in such games.

Once the Nationals wrap up their two-game series with the Rays on Wednesday, they will have nine series and makeup game against the Mets standing between them and the All-Star Break. Of those nine series, all but one will either be against an NL East opponent or a team with a winning record.

With 54 games against divisional opponents still remaining, the Nationals have time to erase their seven-game deficit in the NL East. But they're going to need to play these rivals much better than they already have.