Can Nats reverse fortunes vs. teams over .500?
ATLANTA — The disparity between the 2013 Atlanta Braves and the 2013 Washington Nationals is massive, obvious by the outcomes of the 16 games these two rivals have played so far this season. With Sunday's 2-1 loss at Turner Field, the Nationals are now 4-12 against the Braves. Nothing to debate there.
But look at each game individually, and it quickly becomes clear the disparity isn't as large as it feels. Seven of the 16 games between these two have been decided by one run. The Nationals are 1-6 in those games. Eleven of the games have been decided by two runs. The Nationals are 3-8 in those contests.
Plain and simple, the Braves have done what it takes to win those nip-and-tuck ballgames. The Nationals have not.
"I'm gonna be honest with you: It just seems like they find a way to win," center fielder Denard Span said. "They've broken our hearts time and time again. We've had the leads. I think they've probably come back at least four of those wins, and that can crush a team. I haven't played against a team like that in a while, where they just have our number and you've just got to tip your cap off to them."
The Nationals have failed to win these critical showdowns with the NL East leaders because they have consistently failed to execute in fundamental situations that have proved the difference between victory and defeat. They haven't moved runners up. They haven't stopped opposing runners from moving up. And they absolutely haven't brought runners home.
Sunday's loss was as agonizing as any previous one. The Nationals went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position, an astounding 0-for-9 in the game's first three innings alone.
"It's getting to be kind of sad," manager Davey Johnson lamented. "When we set the table, we don't have good at-bats, we don't drive them in. We did a good job getting on base, but not situational hitting."
Nearly everyone in the lineup was a culprit, but the heart of the order was particularly to blame. Adam LaRoche was 0-for-3 in those situations, stranding six runners on base. Jayson Werth was hitless in his first three attempts, stranding five, before delivering an RBI single in the seventh to account for the Nationals' only run of the afternoon.
"The guys we've got up at the plate are the guys we want up at the plate," Johnson said. "That's the frustrating part."
This has been a recurring theme all season, but it was particularly noticeable over the weekend. Even with an 8-run outburst during Saturday night's marathon, 15-inning win, the Nationals were a collective 5-for-36 with runners in scoring position in the series.
"I think some of us, or myself, are putting too much pressure on ourselves when runners are in scoring position," said Span, who had three hits but flied out to center in his only at-bat with men on base. "I think we've got to remind ourselves that when runners are in scoring position, the pitcher is on the hook. He's the one that has his back to the wall. And I think sometimes we just get a little bit over-aggressive and get away from our plan."
The struggles with offensive execution have plagued the Nationals' pitching staff all year, and Sunday was no exception. Gio Gonzalez gave his team everything he had, surrendering two quick runs in the bottom of the first but then shutting down the Braves for six more innings while throwing 120 pitches on a day in which he knew that's exactly what was needed of him.
After needing to cobble together 14 innings of relief Saturday night, Johnson couldn't turn to his bullpen early on Sunday. That dilemma actually forced him to let Gonzalez hit for himself in a key spot in the top of the sixth, with two on and two out. The weak-hitting Gonzalez (who also popped up a bunt attempt earlier) struck out, but Johnson felt like a pinch-hitter wasn't a viable option right then.
"I just can't do it," the manager said. "I know [Braves starter Julio Teheran] was on the ropes, but I didn't have the innings in the bullpen to do that."
Johnson tried everything in his playbook to coax across the tying run, even having Werth break from first base with one out in the seventh, LaRoche at the plate and another runner on third. LaRoche wound up striking out, and Werth wound up getting thrown out on the stolen base attempt, killing the rally.
Thus, the Nationals were left to try to mount a comeback against the majors' best bullpen, usually a fruitless attempt. The Nationals hadn't so much as scored one run off an Atlanta reliever in their first 32 head-to-head innings this season, and they haven't scored once off closer Craig Kimbrel in their last 13 encounters, dating back to July 2012.
Span did manage to beat out an infield single with one out in the ninth, but he never advanced past first base. Anthony Rendon struck out looking, and Bryce Harper capped an eventful series by striking out on a borderline check-swing called by Marvin Hudson, one that left the 20-year-old barking at the third base umpire and later at a Braves fan who was harassing him from behind the dugout.
"In that situation, you can't really call that," Harper said. "Especially when the home plate umpire says no about three times and doesn't want to check, and they obviously check and they bang me. That's one less pitch I get to see against him, possibly a 2-2 fastball. Kimbrel is a great closer. I think trying to see as many pitches as you can against him is huge, and the deeper I get in the count, it makes me stronger."
That's simply the way things have gone for the Nationals throughout 2013, but particularly against the Braves. They're now separated by 15 1/2 games in the standings, and rightfully so given how well Atlanta has played and how poorly Washington has performed.
But forgive the guys in the frustrated visitors clubhouse Sunday afternoon for believing the outcomes might have been very different had they only executed a handful of times per game.
"We've competed all the way to the end," Gonzalez said. "It's not like we're laying over and letting these guys walk all over us. We're fighting. ... It's not like they're destroying us and doing big damage. They're just playing small ball and finding their hits.
"That was us last year. Now we see it from the other side."