Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Scott Olsen was pulled after three innings and faces an uncertain future.
Jim Riggleman: "Not the least bit."
Willie Harris: "We're on a little skid, but I don't think it's serious."
Miguel Batista: "It's not a big deal."
OK, so clearly the Nationals clubhouse isn't concerned. But are you? Are you concerned that this team has scored a total of 25 runs over its last eight games? Are you concerned that its once-promising record now stands at 21-22, below .500 for the first time since April 15? Are you concerned that Scott Olsen, 10 months removed from surgery to repair a torn labrum, felt his shoulder tighten up while warming in the bullpen before tonight's game?
And this: Are you concerned that the high point of the 2010 season came and went last Thursday in Denver, when the Nats were 20-15 and leading the NL wild-card race?
OK, maybe that last point is a bit extreme. There's far too much baseball left to be played, and there's a certain young right-hander getting ready to make his big-league debut, to declare everything downhill from this moment on.
But for the first time in a while, all is not sunny in NatsTown. And it begins with Olsen, who went from the Nationals' most-dominant starter to a major question mark in the span of 64 pitches.
Pitching coach Steve McCatty knew something wasn't right when he stood behind Olsen in the bullpen about 20 minutes before gametime and didn't see the kind of command and life on his pitches as had become commonplace.
"We just watched him and how he's throwing, just wasn't sure if he was completely loose," McCatty said. "The kid's a tough kid, and he wouldn't say anything. He went out there and battled, and it bothered him."
Based on the way Olsen had been pitching -- pounding the strike zone, keeping the ball down in the zone, breaking opposing hitters' backs with a biting slider -- it was clear he wasn't in top form tonight. Adam Jones blasted a two-run homer on a high fastball in the second to put the Orioles on top, the first home run surrendered by Olsen in six starts. Worse, the left-hander issued three walks in a span of four batters in the third. He had walked a total of three batters over his last three starts.
"We looked at him and we knew something was wrong," said Batista, who wound up replacing Olsen in the fourth and keeping the game manageable with four shutout innings of relief. "When you see a guy like Olsen, who's very aggressive with his fastball, and he's throwing the ball and he's not putting that attitude behind it, you know something's wrong."
Both Riggleman and McCatty said it's too early to know whether Olsen will be able to make his next start or will need to go on the disabled list. The Nats will wait to see how he feels tomorrow and how he throws during his normal between-starts bullpen session Sunday before making any decision.
But let's be honest: Given Olsen's history of shoulder trouble, are you confident at all he'll be back on the mound next week in San Diego? If John Lannan, with no history of arm trouble, had to miss one start with elbow tightness, it's a safe bet Olsen won't be back out there the next time his turn comes up in the rotation.
So Olsen is a legitimate concern right now. So, too, is a Nationals lineup that seemed to be coming together only a week ago but has been silenced since by the likes of Jason Hammel, Kyle Lohse, Raul Valdes and David Hernandez. They've scored a total of eight runs against those four stalwarts.
"I don't think we're in a rut," Willie Harris said. "We're just not scoring big runs when we need to."
Throughout this season, these Nationals have shown a resiliency when faced with any sliver of adversity. This last week constitutes the first real downward swing to date, and four of these seven losses have come by two or fewer runs. So it's not like they're getting trounced or blowing games like the 2009 Nats.
"We played a great ballgame tonight," Riggleman said. "We just got beat. We played good baseball. ... I'm in a much better mood tonight than I was after that last loss, I'll tell you that."
For now, you have to take the Nats at their word. But the clock is ticking for these guys. If the trend doesn't turn back upward by the time this interleague series is over, even Riggleman and Co. may have to admit for the first time they're worried.