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Three Up, Three Down: Nationals Put Their Heads Above Water

Remember what you were doing on May 28 of last year? On that less-than-notable date, the Washington Nationals beat the San Diego Padres 5-3 in the first game of a Memorial Day Weekend series to run their record to 25-24. Naturally, the Nationals lost the next two games of the series and were never seen above .500 again.

Until today, that is. After a three-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers, including yesterday's 8-4 and 5-1 wins, the Nationals will head to St. Louis with a record of 8-7, good enough for third place in the National League East behind the Phillies and Marlins. As on every Monday throughout the season, this column will feature three players or units that have excelled for the Nats in the previous week, and three who need to step up their game. We begin after the jump.

Three Up

1. Livan Hernandez- After a lackluster outing on April 6 against the Marlins (5 innings, 4 earned runs on 6 hits and 5 walks), I can't have been the only one wondering whether this might be the year that Hernandez's talent for eating innings at minimal cost finally went away. This week served as Hernandez's rebuke to his doubters as he churned out quality starts on Tuesday night against the Phillies and in the second game of Sunday's doubleheader, picking up wins in both. In all, Hernandez pitched 13.2 innings this week, giving up two runs while scattering 13 hits. Most notably, Hernandez has not walked a batter since that April 6 outing in Miami Gardens, which is a good sign for the effectiveness of both his four-seam fastball and his curveball. He's gotten a bit lucky with getting out of jams so far (opponents' BABIP is just .256, while Hernandez's left on base percentage is on the high side at 79.4), but the Nats still have to be encouraged by what they've seen from both Hernandez and the next guy on our list.

2. Jason Marquis- Marquis seems to be finally giving the Nats a glimpse of what they were hoping for when they signed him to a two-year deal prior to the 2010 season. The 32-year-old has opened the season with three quality starts for Washington and was at his battling best in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader against the Brewers. After getting out of a bases-loaded, one-out, one-run-in jam in the top of the 4th, Marquis retired eight of the next ten batters he faced, keeping the Brewers at bay while the Nationals offense rallied. 

Like his teammate Hernandez, Marquis has gotten lucky with men on base. His left on base percentage is a whopping 76.3. The only time Marquis went an entire year with a left on base percentage higher than that was in 2004, when he was on the pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals. On the other hand, Marquis' BABIP is a shade high, at .328, so one would have to think that some of the hits he's given up have been unlucky. Marquis is also throwing roughly the same number of ground balls as last year (53.3% so far in 2011 compared to 53.1% in 2010), so this is also, as with Hernandez, a case of Washington's improved infield defense helping him out. 

3. Adam La Roche- Showed some signs of settling in at the plate this week, as he was able to reach base eight times in 20 plate appearances and improved his overall OPS by 111 points (from .596 to .707), helped in large part by his solo shot in the second game Sunday.

Three Down

1. The offense-As of today, the Nationals rank 15th in the 16-team National League in hits (110, ahead of only San Diego), team batting average (.226, San Diego again), and slugging percentage (.351, guess who?). They are 14th in the NL in OPS (.667, behind San Diego and the Dodgers) and 11th in on-base percentage (.316). The only major offensive category that the Nationals place well in are walks, of which they have 62, good for 2nd in the league behind only Colorado. Now, I'm all for patience at the plate, but these stats only serve to emphasize the gaping hole in the middle of Washington's lineup, which LaRoche's improved performance only goes so far in patching.

2. Jayson Werth- A wise move by Jim Riggleman to sit Werth for the second game of Sunday's doubleheader. His heroics on the basepaths Friday night and his home run Tuesday night notwithstanding, Werth had a poor homestand, going just 4-for-20 at the plate with one walk as his OPS dropped from .870 to .683.

3. Chad Gaudin- Yes, he got the win on Friday night and put in a good shift Wednesday against the Phillies. But he also put Riggleman in a tight spot in the first game Sunday after he was brought in ostensibly to close out the ninth with an 8-2 lead. Here's how his afternoon went: walk, single, strikeout, walk. Out came Riggleman and in came Tyler Clippard, who allowed two of Gaudin's runners to score before retiring the side. Just like that, one of Washington's better relievers was lost for the nightcap (though in the end, it wound up not hurting all that much). If Gaudin is to play any significant role in this year's bullpen, he needs to get through situations like that cleanly. He failed that test on Sunday.