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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

No reason to jump off Nats' bandwagon despite April

Slumps and injuries doomed early part of season, but pitching will bring them back

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No reason to jump off Nats' bandwagon despite April play video for No reason to jump off Nats' bandwagon despite April

MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Are the Washington Nationals simply not as good as many of us thought they'd be? Child, please. Don't bring that silly talk around here.

OK, the Nationals have had a terrible opening month. Actually, it has been a nightmare of injuries, slumps and maybe karma.

Baseball tests every team in various ways. No weakness can be hidden through a 162-game schedule.

The Nats won 98 times in 2012, the most in baseball. They were young and gifted, and the best was supposed to be ahead.

So for the first time, they began a season with expectations. Maybe the baseball gods are testing them. Did you boys think it was going to be easy? OK, we'll find out.

One day, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman can't make an accurate throw across the diamond. Another day, first baseman Adam LaRoche finds himself in one of the worst slumps of his career.

The bullpen that looked like it would be one of the best on the planet has had a couple of hiccups. Defense? Don't ask. Washington leads the National League in errors.

Offense? Yeah, pretty much the same story. The Nationals have scored a baffling two runs or less in nine of their last 11 games.

Along the way, they look like a team fighting themselves and the expectations of others. What a strange game.

To succeed is to be both relaxed and aggressive at the same time. About staying back and waiting, waiting, waiting for the right pitch to hit. About trusting the process -- mechanics, team work, calming the mind -- instead of worrying about the results.

What other explanation is there for Jayson Werth taking his team out of an inning by swinging at a 3-0 pitch with men on base?

"Dumb," Werth said.

No, human nature.

That may also explain some of Stephen Strasburg's troubles. Two years ago, he was the best pitcher in baseball at throwing a first-pitch strike.

Strasburg did it 71 percent of the time, and after that, he had a much better chance to control the at-bat. This season, he's ranked 82nd, throwing a first-pitch strike just 58 percent of the time.

Strasburg says he's healthy. He says he still has the ability to throw strikes. Therefore, the only explanation is that, like Werth, Strasburg is trying to put a struggling team on his shoulders instead of simply trusting his dazzling stuff and his teammates.

The 24-year-old right-hander seems to get it. Strasburg says he understands it's not about making the perfect pitch, but about location. Yes, he will get it eventually.

All things considered, the Nationals are fortunate to be 14-14 and a mere 3 1/2 games behind the Braves in the NL East.

Here's where trust comes in. To play through. To trust the guy at the next locker. On Opening Day, the Nats were widely seen as baseball's best team, perhaps the only team that didn't have a single significant area of concern.

From the top of the rotation to the back of the bullpen, from the middle of the lineup to leadership in the clubhouse, the Nationals seemed nearly certain to be playing October baseball.

If you believed in them then, there's no reason to jump off the bandwagon now. General manager Mike Rizzo built his organization on power pitching, and ultimately, that's what will carry the day.

Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann and left-hander Ross Detwiler have been terrific, with a combined 1.80 ERA after 11 starts. Left-hander Gio Gonzalez had a 3.08 ERA in 97 starts the last three seasons. That number suggests this year's 5.34 ERA is not nearly where he'll end up.

In other words, when the Nationals start to roll up quality starts -- and that's how they're going to snap out of this funk -- it'll be pitching that leads them back.

Strasburg's issues are complicated. If he's really healthy -- and he finished his last start with a 98-mph heater -- then it's a matter of poise and mechanics.

If Strasburg doesn't succeed, then neither he nor the Nats were as good as we thought. But the scouts who've watched him closely believe that: (a) he's healthy, and (b) it's a matter of getting his release point back to where it was last season.

Now, about LaRoche. His re-signing was one of the most significant moves Rizzo made last season. Not only was LaRoche coming off a 33-home run, 100-RBI season, he's a huge part of the clubhouse dynamics.

One of the most impressive things about the 2012 Nationals was their ability to play through the highs and lows the same way. When Bryce Harper was summoned to the big leagues last year at age 19, the Nats simply didn't let it become a circus. They embraced the kid, protected him and allowed him to simply go out and play baseball.

It's that clubhouse -- Werth, Zimmerman, LaRoche, shortstop Ian Desmond and others -- that ultimately will carry Washington through these tough opening weeks. The Nationals were good on Opening Day. They'll be good in September, if not October.

One other point about LaRoche. He's a career .214 hitter in April, so while his .129 batting average is extreme even by his own standards, it also suggests there's going to be months of productive baseball ahead.

The Nats aren't going through a single thing that their manager, Davey Johnson, hasn't seen a hundred other times during his 51 years in professional baseball, including 17 as a Major League manager.

The Nationals will be fine because they were smartly constructed, because they're a club with both talent and maturity. Nothing has happened in these first 28 games that should cause anyone to change their assessment about that.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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