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Jun 17

“Can’t anybody here play this game?”

As the Nationals struggled again to bring runners home in their 2-0 loss in Cleveland on Sunday, their fans must have been fuming.

With apologies to Casey Stengel, or whoever initiated the quote that became the title of Jimmy Breslin’s book chronicling the 1962 Mets, the question “Can’t anybody here play this game?” comes to mind.

Seven times, Washington hitters came to bat with at least one runner in scoring position, and seven times, they failed. Four of those at-bats ended in strikeouts and two ended in double plays. In fact, every one of those situations began with at least two men on base and nobody out. Yet the hitters and the men on base could not come through.

The heart of the order, Ryan Zimmerman (four men left on base), Adam LaRoche (five LOB), Jayson Werth (2 LOB) and Ian Desmond (four LOB) made Cleveland starter Corey Kluber look like Bob Feller.

The rally killers were on the bases, too. After fouling a ball of his foot, Denard Span was too sore to score from first when right fielder Drew Stubbs misplayed Werth’s double. Second-year man Steve Lombardozzi made a rookie mistake and was caught off first when Johnathan Solano hit a line shot to Mark Reynolds at first for an easy double play.

These are not fringe players who can be replaced by trades or minor league call-ups. As good as rookie Anthony Rendon has been, and as good as the injured Bryce Harper might be when he returns, the above-mentioned players – the core of the team – are going to have to come through in the clutch for the team to start winning games consistently.

The clutch hitting situation can’t get much worse. The Nationals have scored just five runs in the ninth inning all season, last in the major leagues. They are also last in the majors at .197 when it comes to hitting in the seventh inning or later of a close game (meaning they are either ahead by two runs or fewer, tied, or behind with the potential tying run on base, at bat or in deck). In general, with runners in scoring position, they are batting .241, 21st in the majors, and with two outs, the average shrinks to just .205, 25th in baseball.

Perhaps the best medicine for the Nats is a trip to Philadelphia for a series against a team whose offense is almost as anemic with 258 runs scored to Washington’s 237.  The upcoming schedule offers some more encouragement, with the Mets, Brewers, Padres and Marlins, all in the lower half of the majors in scoring, on tap before the All-Star break.

The best news of all for the Nats is that except for two games in Detroit at the end of July, the interleague schedule is over. That means manager Davey Johnson won’t have to scrounge his bench for a designated hitter or downgrade his defense so one of his regulars can play DH.

As maddening and frustrating as these past few games have been, there is still time to right the ship, as long as the players who are getting paid to hit the ball do their jobs.