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Nationals hitters have been so bad, they can’t possibly keep it up

The Washington Nationals are on pace to score 571 runs this season. That would be the third-fewest of any major league team in the past 20 years. Their pathetic 3.53 runs per game heading into the weekend would be the 13th-worst offense by any team in a full season in the last 36 years.

The Nats’ hitters give “awful” a bad name. They’ve been more like incomprehensibly atrociously abysmal. This lineup has Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, whose contracts total a quarter of a billion dollars. Their shortstop won the ’12 Silver Slugger. Their first baseman hit 33 homers. That doesn’t include Bryce Harper or rookie Anthony Rendon, hitting .325.

Top to bottom, the Nats are choking their brains out. Every statistic that measures performance in pressure situation shows the Nats are gagging.

They can’t hit late in games. In the first six innings, their attack is in the middle of the league despite all their injuries. No pressure, no problem. From the seventh inning on, their average is .199, the worst in MLB. In the ninth inning, they hit like pitchers (.154). “Late and close,” they’re .204.

The Nats can’t start rallies because they have the lowest on-base percentage, by far, in MLB (.264) when leading off an inning. They can’t overcome deficits because they are dead last in hitting (.212) when they are trailing. They can’t hit in hostile parks, last on the road (.212). They can’t hit southpaws, last in MLB (.212).

The Nats’ gruesome offense ducks proper blame because the dismantled Marlins are far worse, threatening generational records for ineptitude. Yet, hideous as the Marlins are (3.06 runs), in pressure spots the Nats plummet below even them. That explains a record hovering around .500. Nats hitters should be ashamed.

This week, I asked Manager Davey Johnson why he looked so depressed in the dugout this year.

“I love offense more than anything,” he said. “It’s depressing me to watch the approach of some of our veteran hitters. When the middle of your lineup is off, the other guys start trying to do too much.

“Maybe they work too hard. They study so much tape they feel like the only way to make use of the work is to ‘guess.’ Look for a pitch in a zone if you want, but don’t ‘guess’ the type of pitch so much. That leads to a lot of called third strikes. Can’t stand watching those. Drives me crazy.”

All this bad news is the best news Nats fans could wish for. Just sit back and enjoy what happens next. It won’t be long. I promise. (Well, almost.)

It is almost a law of nature that if something can’t possibly continue, then it will stop. We recognize this instantly when things are “too good to be true.” If the Nats were ranked first in all the hitting categories in which they now rank 30th, we’d be saying, “This can’t last. They’re not that good.” But in sports, it’s harder to believe the opposite insight: “They’re not that bad.”

The Nats were 10th in runs last year. The rational response to 3.53 runs would be: When they revert to form, watch out.

Writers look for counter-intuitive yet high-probability predictions. This practically defines it. Soon, the Nats will start to hit like a normal team. Or even an above-average team. They’ll get on base to start innings more often, thus creating more big innings. They’ll hit decently in the clutch. They’ll hit multi-run homers, not the current slew of solos. After two months without a comeback win, the heroics will resume. Especially vital, they’ll hit well from the seventh inning on.

The Nats are the only team with three starting pitchers ranked in the top 18 in opponents’ on-base plus slugging percentage: Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. No other team has more than one. If the Nats hit, they’ll win.

Will they win enough to catch Atlanta, whom they trailed heading into the weekend by six games in the NL East or make the wild card where they trailed the Pirates by 6 1∕2 games? That’s a tougher question. The Nats have dug a hole that looks halfway like a grave. But with normal hitting from here on, they should win 88 to 90 games and be in the playoff hunt in the last week of the season.

In fact, it’s even possible that the Nats could hit better than anybody dreams for the rest of the season. You doubt. Last year after 71 games, the Nats were averaging 3.53 runs a game – yes, identical to the pace for the first 72 games this year. Thereafter, the Nats got healthy, found a lineup that clicked and average a stunning 5.36 runs a game. That’s much higher than any team this season. That’s a huge part of how they won 98.

Will lightning strike twice? I doubt it. But it’s a more likely outcome than the odds that the Nats will keep hitting this badly.

Why is it so likely the Nats will soon hit much better? Because, except for Rendon, they have meaningful track records. Even Harper has established a baseline that few would doubt.

Here are the career OPS marks of the Nats starting lineup once Harper returns in about a week: Denard Span (.737), Werth (.821), Harper (.851), Zimmerman (.830), Adam LaRoche (.817), Ian Desmond (.746), Rendon (.843), Kurt Suzuki (.685).

Span, Werth and Rendon may not be quite that good. Desmond and Harper may be better. When Wilson Ramos (.764) comes back, he’s an upgrade. All in all, it’s a wash. So, lets just use the career data.

These eight starters should have combine for an OPS of about .780 to .790. A team’s starters get about two-thirds of its plate appearances (67 percent for the Nats last year). The Nats’ disappointing reserves, who get about 28 percent of the at-bats, project to a much lower OPS, between .650 and .675. Use an OPS of .425 for Nats pitchers in their roughly 300 at-bats.

Put it together and what do you have? A Nats team that “should” have an OPS of about .735. What do such teams usually score? A bit more than 4.50 runs a game. Or a full run a game more than the Nats have so far.

That’s an enormous change. Will it be enough to win a division or make the playoffs? It’ll be close. But it’s coming.

“We should be fully healthy in about two weeks,” Johnson said. “We’ll score.”

After the aggravation so far, don’t forget to enjoy it.

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