Lackluster lineup leads to another Nats loss

Lackluster lineup leads to another Nats loss
April 23, 2013, 12:00 am
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Want a quick synopsis of the state of the Nationals' lineup 19 games into the season? Adam LaRoche has the condensed version.

"We're not getting the big hits," the veteran first baseman said. "A lot of quick innings. Not a ton of baserunners. And five or six guys that aren't swinging the bat real good. When it rains, it pours."

The rain may not be at cats-and-dogs stages right now, but it's coming down at a steady rate, resulting in more than a few frustrating losses like Monday's 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Cardinals.

Despite getting the closest thing Dan Haren has offered up to a quality start this season and some sparkling work out of their bullpen, the Nationals couldn't exorcise their St. Louis demons from last October because they couldn't produce a clutch hit late despite several opportunities.

Thus, a Nationals club that three weeks ago was everyone's prohibitive favorite to reach the World Series fell to 10-9. Yes, they're still over .500, but there's something unsettling about the way they've played to date, especially at the plate.

As a team, the Nationals are hitting .240. Individually, three regulars own batting averages below that mark: LaRoche (.185), Danny Espinosa (.176) and the third base duo of Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon (.213 combined). Throw in three key bench players who have been abysmal so far — Tyler Moore (.158), Chad Tracy (.136) and Roger Bernadina (0-for-15) — and it's easy to see why they've had such trouble scoring runs in bunches.

"It think that's what we're kind of stumped on," LaRoche said. "It's normal to have a couple of guys that aren't going. But it gets kind of washed away when you've got other guys picking up the slack. Now we just don't have that. And that can turn into guys pressing. When you have a chance to score, to try a little too hard."

LaRoche and Desmond might well have been guilty of that during a critical juncture in Monday night's game. After watching a potential seventh-inning rally snuffed out when Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay made a nifty, sliding catch of Tracy's broken-bat blooper with two on and two out, the Nationals gave themselves another opportunity in the bottom of the eighth.

Denard Span beat out a grounder to third to get things started, then after Jayson Werth struck out, Bryce Harper drew a walk against St. Louis reliever Trevor Rosenthal. To the plate stepped LaRoche with a chance to drive in the tying run.

Instead, the cleanup hitter bounced Rosenthal's first pitch to first base, advancing the runners but recording the second out of the inning in the process.

"That guy can throw 100," LaRoche said of Rosenthal. "The first fastball you see, you want to go after it. And if you miss it, go after the next one."

With two outs and runners on second and third, Desmond stepped up with his own chance to drive in the tying run, and possibly the go-ahead run as well. But the All-Star shortstop was headed back to the bench in short order, taking a fastball for strike one, swinging out of his shoelaces and missing for strike two, then watching a 98 mph fastball from Rosenthal sail right through the heart of the zone for strike three.

"That's the situation I want to be in: Tying run on second, and the game on the line," Desmond said. "I'll take me in that situation any day of the week. He just got me out in that situation today. Hopefully I get that opportunity again."

Davey Johnson didn't sound entirely pleased with his hitters' approach in those situations.

"All he was throwing was fastballs," the manager said. "The umpire was giving him a little bit of the top end of the strike zone, but you've got to make him bring it down and just center on the fastball."

The Nationals went down quietly in the ninth against recently named Cardinals closer Edward Mujica, ending a frustrating night and leaving Haren to suffer his third loss in four starts despite the fact he showed significant signs of improvement in this one.

After getting beat around by the Reds, White Sox and Marlins, Haren was hoping to at least record his first quality start as a National. He was on track to do just that, entering the sixth inning having allowed only two runs with a manageable pitch count of 87. But the veteran right-hander not only couldn't get through the sixth, he couldn't even record an out.

Haren's undoing began when he plunked Matt Holliday with a pitch, then exacerbated itself on back-to-back singles by Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina and finally a walk to David Freese. Out to the mound strolled Johnson, asking for the ball from his starter, who wasn't interested in finding the positives out of this latest loss.

"Not really," Haren said. "I want more out of myself than five innings, giving up three runs and [reliever Craig] Stammen bailing me out of that jam. I've been around for 10 years. I'm used to throwing seven, eight innings every time. I've thrown 200 innings many times. Going five innings, you're not going to do that."

It took a major escape act from Stammen — stranding the bases loaded with nobody out — to keep the deficit at 3-2 and at least give the Nationals lineup a chance to rally late.

But this lineup hasn't been able to rally much so far this season. And that has left this team in a strange position: Still boasting a winning record but not living up to the lofty expectations placed upon it.

"It's a long season," Desmond said. "As an outsider looking in, you see 98 wins last year and you expect to see the same again this year. But in order to win 98 games, you've got to lose a bunch of games, too. It doesn't matter if we lose them in April or September or October or whatever. We've just got to keep on playing and it'll turn for us."