2nd half opener feels like 1st half for Nats

2nd half opener feels like 1st half for Nats
July 20, 2013, 12:30 am
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Johnson on Nats' loss to Dodgers: 'That was frustrating'

They took four days off to catch their collective breath, take their minds off baseball and let their bodies heal. And when they took the field Friday on a sweltering night in the District, the Nationals wanted to believe things would be different, that they would start producing clutch hits and get big outs when they needed them and win tight ballgames.

Three sweaty hours later, they trudged off that field after a 3-2 loss to the Dodgers, feeling like they had just played a carbon-copy ballgame that resembled so many that came over the season's first 3 1/2 months.

"Everybody's here to watch us score runs and win baseball games, and there's no excuse to it," Chad Tracy said. "We just can't get the rhythm. We had opportunities tonight against quality pitching. We just didn't get it done."

Tracy could have uttered those lines after the vast majority of the Nationals' 48 losses this season. This game could have been played on April 13 or May 12 or June 14 or July 19. Ignore the calendar, and you couldn't differentiate this one from any other.

Stephen Strasburg pitched well and deserved the win but was saddled with no decision. The Nationals lineup squandered golden opportunities against a laboring opponent. And a tie ballgame late turned on one big swing against a member of the Nats bullpen.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

"That was frustrating," manager Davey Johnson said. "What, did we score on a wild pitch? We didn't drive in hardly any runs. It leaves a tough taste in your mouth."

This one is perhaps extra difficult to swallow because it leaves the Nationals with a .500 record and — combined with the Phillies' blowout win in New York — it leaves them in sole possession of third place in the NL East for the first time since early June, a full seven games behind the division-leading Braves.

It didn't have to be this way, of course. The Dodgers gave the Nationals ample opportunities to take this game, especially early on. But for five innings, the only run they plated off Ricky Nolasco came when Bryce Harper scampered home on a wild pitch, moments after he should have been called out at third base on a ridiculously impressive throw by rookie right fielder Yasiel Puig.

It wasn't until Ian Desmond's RBI single in the sixth that the Nationals brought home another run, and they never crossed the plate again after that, going 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

The biggest groan-inducer of the night: the bottom of the fourth inning, which saw the Nationals load the bases with nobody out and then fail to score. Desmond tapped a grounder to third on a check-swing. Tracy (filling in for an ill Adam LaRoche) lofted a shallow flyball to left, with Harper only bluffing a tag despite Carl Crawford's off-line throw to the plate. And Wilson Ramos grounded out to the pitcher, ending the inning and eliciting some healthy boos from the crowd of 39,146.

"You know, it sucks," Harper said. "You try to get guys on and score some runs. Getting the bases loaded with no outs is a huge situation. And we couldn't capitalize."

Particularly troubling on this night was Tracy, who couldn't take advantage of his rare opportunity to start and wound up going 0-for-4, stranding six men on base (four in scoring position) and seeing his season batting average fall to .149.

"Any time you don't get at-bats strung together, it's tough, you start in the hole," the 33-year-old said. "But that's why I'm here. I'm a veteran guy. I've been through it before. So I should be able to make the adjustment, and I just haven't done it."

LaRoche's absence from the lineup was noticeable, but should the loss of one key starter be completely insurmountable?

"Whenever you lose one of your middle of the lineup guys, it always hurts," Johnson said. "But guys are still capable, very capable, that we've got."

The lack of run support once against cost Strasburg, who for the 11th time already this season gave up three or fewer earned runs without earning a win. That happened to him only eight times in 2012.

It also left Johnson trying to finagle his bullpen and bench through the late innings of a tie ballgame. He got a dominant eighth from Tyler Clippard but then turned to closer Rafael Soriano for the ninth in a non-save situation, with the left-handed Andre Ethier leading off.

Soriano quickly got ahead in the count, firing back-to-back fastballs over the outside corner. But after four straight fastaballs outside, he tried to sneak a slider down and in to Ethier. Though his final pitch was low, out of the strike zone, Ethier managed to golf it just over the right-field fence for the tie-breaking homer.

"I don't know how he hit the ball," said Soriano, who has now surrendered homers in two of his last three appearances. "When I make mistakes, it's not easy for me. But when I make the pitch, and they hit the ball good like tonight, there's nothing I can do."

That helpless feeling permeates the Nationals clubhouse right now. It doesn't seem to matter what Johnson does to tweak his lineup. It doesn't matter how well a starter pitches. They keep finding ways to lose close, low-scoring ballgames.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.