Identity-less Nationals drop another one

Identity-less Nationals drop another one
June 19, 2013, 1:15 am
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Nats' bats sputter versus Cliff Lee

PHILADELPHIA — They need to get healthy. They need to start getting on base at a rate that doesn't rank among the dregs of the league. They need to make plays at crucial moments in ballgames. They need to find an identity. Maybe they need to do as Jayson Werth suggests and "eat somebody's face."

Whatever the case, the Nationals recognize they've nearly reached the midpoint of a frustrating year and they've yet to come close to living up to their lofty preseason expectations. Perhaps that's been the problem all along. As Werth and Ian Desmond put it following Tuesday night's 4-2 loss to the Phillies, this team might still be living in the past.

"It's so hard when you have such success last year," Desmond said. "It's so hard to let go of the things that you did last year. This is a new team. We have probably a better team, a better squad roster-wise. But we're ... trying to force the things on ourselves that we did last year, instead of going out and playing the game that we know how to play this year. We're not giving ourselves a chance to become the 2013 Nats. We're playing as 2012."

Put another way, these Nationals have yet to establish their own identity, even though they've already played 70 games, winning only 34 of them.

"Maybe we've kind of lacked an identity as a team," Werth said. "But you know, I think as you start winning games and you start playing and you go on a roll or you rally or whatever it is you do, you kind of create an identity. We just haven't hit stride as far as that goes. How many times have we rallied this year? How many winning streaks have we gone on? We just haven't hit stride yet. Hopefully soon."

It's been a while since the Nationals went on anything remotely resembling a winning streak. The last time they were victorious in three straight games? May 8-10, when they rattled off five straight wins against the Pirates, Tigers and Cubs.

They have managed to avoid long losing streaks, too, keeping themselves right above, right at or right below the .500 mark, but Tuesday's loss was their third straight. And this one resembled far too many that came before it.

Despite getting a quality pitching performance for most of the night, the Nationals were done in by a lack of offense — they managed two solo homers off Cliff Lee, nothing more — and then failed to make a play when it really mattered.

With the Phillies ahead 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth, a laboring Ross Detwiler righted his ship for a moment, striking out Domonic Brown and Delmon Young with the bases loaded. Then Kevin Frandsen lofted a soft liner to shallow left field.

Steve Lombardozzi, a natural second baseman still learning his way around the outfield, took a step back at first before charging in and that slow reaction might have cost him and his team. Lombardozzi couldn't quite get there in time, eventually catching the ball on a short-hop and then firing a late throw to the plate on what became a two-run single.

"It was a tough, tough play," Lombardozzi said. "I was going in on it, and I would've had to dive to catch it. I didn't know if I could catch it. The last thing I want to do is let the ball get behind me."

That play proved significant when Jeff Kobernus launched his first career homer two innings later, trimming the deficit to 4-2. Thus, the two runs that scored on Frandsen's soft single represented the final difference on the scoreboard.

Of course, this loss ultimately could be attributed directly to the Nationals' offensive woes, the latest example. Yes, they got the two homers, giving them a respectable 63 for the season. But 39 of those 63 homers have been solo shots, and another 18 have come with only one man on base.

Thus, the Nationals have delivered only five 3-run homers all season (not to mention zero grand slams).

"When we get some guys on base, we get a little passive for some reason," manager Davey Johnson said.

It doesn't help when the team sports a collective .291 on-base percentage, second-to-last in the majors. It's hard to hit 3-run homers when there's nobody on base in the first place.

The Nationals, though, also believe there's something lacking off the field right now: identity. It's something last year's club had, and it's something this year's club has yet to find.

The impending return of Bryce Harper from a knee injury will help, no question about it. But these players also understand the 20-year-old outfielder alone isn't going to turn their fortunes around.

"We're waiting for Superman," Desmond said. "But we have a good enough team. We have a very good team, with the pieces we have right now. We're totally capable of winning. We just have to do it."

They'll try to start that process over again on Wednesday, desperately needing a win to avoid a sweep at the hands of a Phillies club that has once again caught them for second place in the NL East.

And they insist when they do arrive back at the ballpark, they won't still be languishing over this latest loss.

"People that drown in it and people that take it home and allow it to eat at them and all that don't usually last too long," Werth said. "They don't stick around. That's all part of being a big-leaguer. You've just got to do it. You've got to show up tomorrow ready to eat somebody's face."