Offensive surge has led to strong second half
The Nationals spent the first two months of the 2012 season desperately hoping they could piece together a lineup just good enough to take advantage of their excellent pitching staff.
More than that has happened since the All-Star break. They have suddenly become one of the best offensive teams in the National League, and that in large part fueled a 28-14 record in the second half entering Saturday's game at Philadelphia.
The pitching has remained stable, though the bullpen has regressed some under a heavy workload. But as more players have returned from the disabled list, manager Davey Johnson has watched his team morph into a credible offensive threat.
Washington ranked 20th in baseball in runs scored before the All-Star break in mid-July. In the first 41 games of the second half -- over a quarter of a full season -- it was third with 198 runs. That put the Nats ahead of such designated-hitting, American League juggernauts as the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers. Only the San Francisco Giants (201 runs) and Los Angeles Angels (216 runs) had more.
"To be able to basically put our lineup out there for the first time is really fun," Johnson said. "Now that I'm able to put them all together I really like, from top to bottom, our lineup. It's going to create some matchup problems for the opposing manager."
Washington is relying on its depth more than its star power. It doesn't have a single player who has enough qualified at-bats to rank among the top 40 hitters in the game this season based on OPS. Ian Desmond led the pack entering Saturday, and he sat at .822 (45th).
But while outfielder Jayson Werth won't get there this season because of three months missed with a broken left wrist, he has returned from the disabled list this month playing his best baseball since signing with the Nats last season.
Werth had an .858 OPS in his first 169 at-bats. In August alone he had 25 hits, nine for extra bases, and is showing exceptional patience at the plate with 10 walks and just seven strikeouts. That was a weakness last year with a career-worst 160. Johnson has even used Werth to plug the void atop his lineup where no Washington player has had a good enough on-base percentage to thrive there in his absence.
Johnson is also convinced that a relatively minor adjustment has made Werth harder to pitch to -- and that the rest of the roster has adapted a similar philosophy at the behest of Johnson and hitting coach Rick Eckstein. Instead of waiting on a pitch and trying to lash it to right field all the time, they will attack the pitch on its own merit. Opponents realized the wait-and-see approach last year and pounded fastballs on the inner half of the plate.
"And that was a vulnerability. It didn't matter if you threw 85 [mph]. You could run it in on us, and we were taking it or [hitting] it to right," Johnson said. "I talked about that approach with [Werth] at the end of last season. I said, 'I remember you being a good hitter driving the ball to all fields.' He came into spring training this year doing just that -- as well as a lot of other guys on the ballclub. Our philosophy now is not just going up there but to hit the ball hard where it's pitched."
That has also apparently led to a power surge. In 2011, Washington hit 154 home runs all season. Despite a lineup wounded by injuries to Werth, outfielder Michael Morse (strained lat muscle), catcher Wilson Ramos (torn ACL), third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (right shoulder) and Desmond (left oblique tear) -- all of whom have gone on the disabled list at some point, with Ramos lost for the season on May 12 -- the Nats already had 135 homers with 37 games left entering Saturday.