Nats fight to follow up on magical 2012 run

It is not where the Nationals expected to be with the Memorial Day weekend approaching.

A difficult California road trip, where injury woes worsened, the offense continued to stagnate and wins were hard to come by, showed once and for all that Washington's path to the postseason won't be an easy one.

At 24-23, the Nats finally return to the District for a five-game homestand that begins Friday night against the Philadelphia Phillies. But after a cross-country flight that didn't arrive until 2 a.m., they had a day off Thursday to lick their wounds and hope to build on a 2-1 extra-inning victory at San Francisco the day before.

Numbers game
Falling short of 2012
The Nationals' struggles show up clearly in the stats. While the pitching is no longer elite but still good, the hitting has fallen off from quite good to well below average.
Stat 2013 so far 2012
Record 24-23 98-64
Rank in NL 8th 1st
Batting avg. .225 .261
Rank in NL 14th 4th
OPS .653 .750
Rank in NL 14th 4th
ERA 3.53 3.33
Rank in NL 6th 1st
Avg. allowed .251 .237
Rank in NL 8th 1st

That victory kept Washington within shouting distance of the streaking Atlanta Braves, who have won six games in a row and lead the National League East by 4? games. But shouting distance isn't exactly what they had in mind for 2013. A year ago, through 47 games, Washington was in first place at 29-18 and had outscored its opponents by 31 runs. This time, it has been outscored by 26 runs and is not only in second in the division but also 4? games out of the second wild-card berth in the National League.

"I don't like it. But again, our offense has just been down," Nats manager Davey Johnson told reporters on Wednesday in a post-game press conference televised by MASN. "We got a whole bunch of guys that need to start stepping it up. I think we'll do that when we go home."

Johnson's club went 4-6 on the road trip, which isn't that bad considering all the drama that followed it from Los Angeles to San Diego to San Francisco. The team lost starting pitcher Ross Detwiler (right oblique strain) and catcher Wilson Ramos (leg hamstring strain) to injury. It is the second time Ramos has hit the disabled list with that malady.

Detwiler is expected back soon without requiring a trip to the disabled list, but the news wasn't so positive for outfielder Jayson Werth, who also aggravated a right hamstring strain while already on the DL. He is likely out two more weeks and has played one game since April 30.

Werth's absence highlights an offense that is still scuffling. Bryce Harper has carried that group with a .994 OPS, but he is also battling knee soreness thanks to a run-in with a Dodger Stadium fence on May 13. That flared up again in Wednesday's win over San Francisco and is yet another concern for Johnson, who can't afford to lose his most productive offensive player.

Adam LaRoche is slowly recovering from an abysmal start to the year and Ryan Zimmerman (.800 OPS) has been solid at the plate while he continues to fight throwing issues at third base. He has eight errors on the season and had another misfire Wednesday that was saved by LaRoche. Total errors aren't the best way to tell how good a team is playing defensively, but the Nats lead the majors with 37 and that isn't good.

The continued struggles of second baseman Danny Espinosa are another issue. He had a hit and a walk on Wednesday, which was positive, but is still 2-for-34 since May 12 and sat out two games. That leaves a hole in the bottom of Washington's batting order.

The bench hasn't been as productive, with reserves Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina both struggling at the plate. And the bullpen, once a consistent strength for the Nats, has a 4.21 ERA. That ranked 22nd in the majors entering play Thursday. It all adds up to a frustrating start. But there are also 115 games left to go.