Swept In Cincinnati

The Nationals seem to have slipped back — with their performance against the Redlegs in Cincinnati a reminder of just how terrible they were in April and May. Yesterday’s game was a case in point: the Nationals kept pace with the Reds, but only when they needed to, and ended up losing the third game of the three game series in the 14th inning. The loss came when Joey Votto took a Collin Balester offering deep to end the game in another Cincy walk-off.

How did the Nationals get swept in Cincinnati? Poor pitching, sloppy defense and no punch at the plate. That’s a sure combination for mediocrity — or worse. In his last start of the season, Jordan Zimmermann wasn’t able to get out of the fifth (giving up six hits and three earned runs), the defense behind him booted the ball twice, and the Nationals were 4-19 with runners in scoring position.

The same kind of lack of punch dominated the series for the Nats: they were outscored 15-10, though that was an improvement over the simply awful offensive output against the D-Backs the week before, when they were outscored 10-3. The problem is not just hitting (Ryan Zimmerman is hitting the ball well, as is Jayson Werth), it’s hitting when there are runs to be had. Ian Desmond left eight runners on base yesterday, and Danny Espinosa six. So it was that Washington outhit the Reds (which is actually saying something), but without any appreciable results.

The loss was Washington’s sixth in a row, and the team is now sliding well under .500, and in danger of passing Florida for last place honors. A last place finish would be a major disappointment, as it would undermine the noticed improvement in play — and personnel. It’s going to take some doing to return to dead-even: the Nationals take on the Atlanta Braves in Atlanta starting tomorrow.

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The fans of Cincinnati have to be among the most loyal of any in the majors. Nary a boo is heard for their struggling players — it’s almost as if their Redlegs are in first place. And there’s little question that Joey Votto is the fan favorite: consistently and vocally cheered. He’s the Ryan Zimmerman of Cincinnati. Even so (and in spite of their three game sweep against the Nationals), this is a team that needs more than a few pieces . . .

And the Great American Ball Park is a great ballpark, but it’s a bandbox and lifting the ball into the seats is not a problem. That leaves Cincy G.M. Walt Jocketty with the same kind of problem that faces managers in a number of other N.L. locales — the most important being Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Jocketty must find strike-em-out  and ground ball down-in-the-zone pitchers.

One such is (or perhaps, was) Edinson Volquez, who electrified the Cincinnati faithful in 2008 when he came over from Texas in a trade for Josh Hamilton. The baseball world was wowed by Hamilton, but Volquez was just as stunning. He led the N.L. in strikeouts in registering 17 wins against six losses. There was just this hint of a problem — Volquez also led the league in hit batters.

Then too, this is Cincinnati, “where arms go to die.” A surgeon oughta follow Dusty Baker around, as he has a habit of overusing his starters. He did that with Volquez, who took a year (and Tommy John surgery) to recover from 2008. He came roaring back in 2010, with the same velocity, but with the same problems in pitching strikes. The Reds sent him down to Triple-A, but they seem not to have learned their lesson: his replacement is (yikes) Dontrelle Willis, who has the same problems . . .

Volquez might be “the best pitcher not in the majors” — he’s hit 98 on the speed gun for the Louisville Bats and in his most recent outing had his best stuff of the last year. But while he racks up strikeouts, he’s still wild. He walks about three to four hitters every seven innings or so, which is the primary reason he’s not back in Cincy. Still, there’s hope. The Redlegs are about one power pitcher away from a good 2012 campaign, and Volquez could be it . . .

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