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Washington Nationals continue to leave their bats in the dugout

The Nationals looked lost at the plate in their opening series with the New York Mets. This was frustrating, but it can be understandable when you struggle to score runs against good pitching. When you follow that series up with a dud against Jerome Williams, though, that can be tough to stomach.

The Nats bats continued to flounder in Friday's 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.
The Nats bats continued to flounder in Friday's 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Nats had a difficult task to start the year.  They began the year with a series in which they faced crafty veteran Bartolo Colon, reigning NL Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, and young stud Matt Harvey.  They plated just six runs in the three game set with New York, showing little depth with a lineup that is missing three of its best hitters right now.  Regardless of the slow start and the missing bats, you could almost picture the Nats eyes lighting up as they took a trip north to Citizens Bank Park for a date with journeyman starter Jerome Williams.

I don't want to say that Williams has never been any good, because that would make me a liar.  Once upon a time (in 2001), Williams was considered one of the very best pitching prospects in baseball.  Baseball America ranked him atop the Giants system for the second year in a row and ranked him nineteenth overall.  Alas, that was fourteen years ago, and things never really panned out quite as well for Williams as some thought they might.  Now 33, Williams is entering his tenth season as a major league pitcher.

Williams has amassed a 4.40 ERA, a 1.36 WHIP, and a 573:312 strikeout to walk ratio in 891 innings entering the 2015 campaign.  He's pitched for seven different organizations since 2003, including the Washington Nationals.  After that brief stint with the Nats, Williams went four seasons without making a big league appearance, which was partially due to injury and partially due to the fact that he just hasn't been a very good major league pitcher.  Over the past few seasons, he's hung on as a depth guy who was able to deal with being a long reliever/swing man out of the bullpen and could step in to provide replacement level innings if an injury struck his team's rotation.

The Phillies are at a point where it makes some sense for them to have a cheap stopgap guy or two (Aaron Harang? Sean O'Sullivan?) in their rotation while they hopefully develop some younger talent.  This kind of made Williams and the Phillies a perfect match.  He can use the opportunity to start for a poor big league club to try and show that he can be useful at the big league level and hang on for a few more years.  The Phillies don't spend a ton of money on a pitcher who may block a potential impact prospect, but give themselves a replacement level starter to hold down the fort for a little while.

When you're a team that has been struggling to score runs, you desperately want to see an opposing pitcher like Jerome Williams coming up on the schedule.  He's the type of pitcher that legit big league hitters (of which the Nats have five right now) should devour.  He's also the type of pitcher that AAA hitters (of which the Nats have three) should hold their own against.  Jerome Williams was supposed to be the slumpbuster that would help the Nats get out of their early season funk......

6.0 IP, 5 H, 1 BB, 1 R, 1 ER, 6 K

That's Jerome Williams' line from Friday night's game against the Nats.  Michael Taylor demolished a 3-2 fastball into the left field seats to start the game.  For the rest of the night, the Nats bats proceeded to look just about as feeble as they looked in the series against the Mets.  After Friday's loss, the Nats have scored seven runs on the season. There are fourteen MLB teams that have scored at least seven runs in a game so far this season.  Five of them did that on Friday.  Still, the season is so young that there are actually five other teams (Cubs [3], Cardinals, Mariners, White Sox, Twins [all 7]) that haven't scored any more runs than the Nats have so far.

Let's have some fun with sample sizes.......

  • Joey Votto has more RBI (8) than the Nats have runs scored so far this season
  • Adrian Gonzalez, Corey Dickerson, and Diamondbacks' rookie Jake Lamb have as many RBI (7) as the Nats have runs scored
  • Adrian Gonzalez has scored as many runs as the Nats have

I don't think there's a better way to describe what the Nats' offense has been so far than the video above.  As I mentioned earlier, they're without three key bats, but that does still mean that five regular starters are healthy and in the lineup.  Those five healthy starters are hitting a combined .217/.280/.362 so far this season.  Of course, so far this season refers to a whopping 4 games, 69 AB, and 75 PA, so let's not jump off a bridge or anything.... If the starters are still hitting like this on May 11, I'll start to get worried.  For now, they just need to keep plugging away, cut down on the strikeouts some, and hope that their luck turns around.

Matt Williams and the bullpen

I'm probably going to gloss over this topic today a lot more than I did with the Treinen story the other day.  To be fair, when you score one run against Jerome Williams, it's awfully hard to pin the loss on a manager's decision to stick with his starter too long... or to go to the wrong pitcher to replace him.  Using last year as a reference, I think it's safe to say that Matt Williams is going to give me plenty of opportunities to call him out on his bullpen usage in 2015.  Still, I'll touch on his decisions Friday.

Williams probably stuck with Gio Gonzalez a batter or two too long.  Gio had struggled with his control early in the game, but he'd really settled in for the most part until the seventh inning.  In the seventh inning, Gio started to do one of those things that we've frequently seen means he's near the end over the past three years: He started to nibble.

Gio has always been a bit of a nibbler, but he usually finds that rhythm where he trusts his stuff enough so that he goes into attack mode with two strikes.  For five innings (innings 2 through 6) on Friday, he did that.  In the first, he took a little time to settle in.  In the seventh, he seemed reluctant to challenge hitters with the count in his favor.  Looking back at the pitch by pitch, Gio actually got ahead of each of his final three hitters 0-2 (I remembered he'd been 0-2 to Rupp and Blanco, but forgot he was up 0-2 on Sizemore).  He ended up walking Sizemore and Rupp, two below average hitters.  He ended up hitting Andres Blanco.

How a pitcher who had turned consecutive 0-2 counts into walks with a pitch count over 90 in the seventh inning of his first start of the year was allowed to face another batter is beyond my understanding.  Here's something from Williams' post-game press conference:

"We had the lefty and the righty going. Unless we have to -- he still hadn't given up a run -- so unless we have to get him out of there we want to let him try to finish that, but didn't work out that way."

That strategy doesn't sound very proactive to me.  Williams didn't want to get Gio unless he had to... He still hadn't given up a run.  Never mind that he appeared to be running on fumes, was having trouble with his control, and was in serious danger of allowing a run.  Wait till he actually gives one up?

I'll try and hash through the manager speak.  Gio Gonzalez was set to lead off the eighth inning.  Williams didn't want to burn a reliever in the seventh inning because he was going to pinch hit for his pitcher to lead off the eighth inning anyway.  Never mind that with a late lead and Dan Uggla having batted in the top of the seventh, it gave him a great excuse to double switch for defense anyway.......

Going to Cedeno

I'm not going to fault him here.  Williams didn't get any relievers going until Gio had walked Sizemore.  Both Stammen and Cedeno were ready by the end of Rupp's at bat, but it's doubtful that they could have had Thornton ready instead of Cedeno by the end of Blanco's at bat.  The trouble with second-guessing mid-inning bullpen moves is that the game situation can become a lot more dicey while pitchers are warming up.  Based on his comment, Williams wasn't expecting to have to go to the bullpen at all in that seventh inning, much less worry about which lefty he'd use in a bases loaded situation with one out.

Was choosing the lefty the right choice?  When Williams went to Cedeno, I scrambled to look things up on him while I was in the game thread since... well.... there's not much reason to have a deep knowledge of a backup infielder's splits in my mental Rolodex.  d_c_guy beat me to the punch, mentioning that Cesar Hernandez had just a .600 OPS against lefties in his major league career.. all 237 plate appearances he's accrued.  While writing this up, I did a little more research.  His minor league performance, which gives us a lot more data to work with, tells me that he's actually been quite a bit better against LHP than RHP throughout his career.  While Baseball Reference's minor league splits don't allow me to look at an entire career, Hernandez has had an OPS of .780 or better against LHP in each of the past three years.... his highest OPS against RHP in that three year span was .750.

I liked Cedeno at the time as the better choice based on not having a lot of knowledge of the Phillies' 24-year-old backup infielder.  I can see how Williams would have made the choice, but if he's so big on planning, I would like to think that (for a player with all of 237 major league PA) he'd be aware of how Hernandez has performed in larger samples as he's come up through the minors.

Either way, that's not the reason that the Nats lost.  Even with a depleted lineup, they should be scoring more than one run against Jerome Williams.