Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Roger Bernadina has seized the right field job over the last two weeks.
The Nationals spent a much-needed, quiet day in San Francisco yesterday, with a roster full of players and coaches physically and mentally exhausted from a 20-games-in-20-days stretch that ended on a high note with Sunday's walk-off win over the Orioles.
The Nats gladly took the off-day, even if it was in a town on the other coast, because they were starting to run on fumes by the end of that long stretch. Yes, they pulled off a .500 record over the 20-game span, one that included a five-game losing streak. But they also saw one of their best starting pitchers and their starting catcher succumb to injuries. Their center fielder and leadoff man is in a prolonged funk that has affected every aspect of his game. And they now face another tough stretch of 13 games in 13 days, the first 10 on the road, the first six against the NL West's top two teams (the Giants and Padres).
I'm on my way out to the city by the bay right now, but while I'm speeding across flyover country at 37,000 feet, here are some thoughts on the Nationals. I'm curious to hear your take...
-- The Nats are going to be seriously tested for the next two weeks without Ivan Rodriguez. There are players this team can afford to lose for a prolonged period, and then there are those it simply can't afford to lose. Right now, I'd put Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Pudge at the top of the list. Ian Desmond and Josh Willingham wouldn't be far behind. It's not just the total package Rodriguez brings to the table, though his offense, game-calling and leadership will be sorely missed. It's the fact the Nats will have to go the next two weeks with Wil Nieves and Carlos Maldonado behind the plate. With all due respect to those two, the drop-off from Pudge will be drastic. We saw last year how tough it is to play for long stretches with two career backup catchers splitting duties. Nieves is a solid backup, and he does good work when he's used twice a week. But once he has to start playing four or five times a week, he gets exposed. The Nats can only hope these two hold their own now that they're in the spotlight, and that Rodriguez's stint on the DL is a brief one.
-- Roger Bernadina is making a legitimate case to be the everyday right fielder. The Nationals said all along they wanted to give Bernadina a shot and see what he could do. Well, after a sluggish start, he's caught fire and has become a key contributor both at the plate and in the field. Since his breakout, two-homer game at Citi Field two weeks ago, he's batting .343 (12-for-35) with six extra-base hits, 11 RBI, a .686 slugging percentage and a 1.070 OPS. And he's made several outstanding plays in both right and center fields. Jim Riggleman will probably continue to sit Bernadina against left-handed pitching, but the 25-year-old has done enough to show he deserves to get every at-bat against right-handers.
-- The most-patient hitter on the Nationals' roster isn't Dunn, it's Willingham. Did you know the Hammer has drawn more walks (33) than Dunn (28) and outpaces him in on-base percentage (.425 to .380)? Willingham actually leads the National League in walks. He's done this quietly, but Willingham has always been a patient hitter with a good sense of the strike zone. And he still produces when he swings the bat. Witness Sunday's game-winning homer in the 10th.
-- Drew Storen has provided a huge boost to the Nats' bullpen, but so has Doug Slaten. Slaten's arrival from Class AAA two weeks ago didn't generate many headlines, but he's proven to be an important piece to the bullpen puzzle. The left-hander allowed a run on three hits in his first appearance but hasn't been scored on again over his last six outings. He's given up only three hits in that time, has only walked two and has picked up two victories. With Sean Burnett also rediscovering his touch, Riggleman suddenly has a deep bullpen and doesn't have to rely solely on "Clip 'n Save" anymore.
-- The first round of National League All-Star balloting results comes out today. I'm really curious to see where Zimmerman and Rodriguez rank at their respective positions. I don't expect anyone else to crack the top five (maybe Dunn at first base, though I still don't think he's that well-known around the country) but you can make a strong case that both Zimmerman and Rodriguez deserve to win the vote. Those of us who have been watching each guy all season know they deserve strong consideration. Has the rest of the country picked up on it?