Nationals suffer a frustrating defeat to the Braves
You could point to Stephen Strasburg's inability to hold a runner on first base, a recurring problem that led to an early run. You could point to Tyler Clippard's rare meatball of a changeup to Justin Upton in the eighth, a waist-high pitch that landed in the bleachers. And you absolutely could point to the Nationals' continued woes at the plate with runners in scoring position, which left the crowd of 33,002 in a state of complete exasperation Monday night.
At this point, though, it really doesn't matter how the Nationals lose games. It only matters that they continue to lose games, digging themselves into a hole that grows with each passing day at a time when they can't afford to fall any deeper into the abyss.
"Two months left, and we're 13 games back," Clippard said with a sigh.
Not to nitpick, but the deficit actually is 13 1/2 games now after Monday's 3-2 loss to the Braves, the latest in a long line of agonizing losses suffered by the Nationals this season.
"I mean, that's baseball," manager Davey Johnson said. "But boy, we needed that one."
The Nationals need them all right now. There are only 50 games remaining on the schedule, eight more against Atlanta, and each one that ends in a loss stings even more than the previous one.
Put Monday's loss right near the top of the list. As agonizing as it was, it felt no different than perhaps two dozen other losses the Nationals have experienced this year.
For the 51st time in 112 games, they failed to score more than two runs. And for the 27th time in those 51 games, they gave up no more than three.
Compounding the level of frustration in this one: The Braves scored one of their runs barely hitting the ball out of the infield, while the Nationals smoked multiple line drives right at somebody and were left with nothing to show for it.
"You see it. I see it. It's frustrating," said Stephen Strasburg, the victim of some of the bad luck. "What can you do? Have good ABs, put a good swing on the ball, hit it right to a guy. Terrible contact, and they somehow dump it over somebody's head."
Not that the Nationals played a perfect ballgame, far from it. The Braves might have scored their first run off Strasburg without benefit of a solid base hit, but they scored their second as a direct result of his failure to keep an opponent from stealing a base off him.
With two outs in the fifth, Strasburg let Justin Upton get a huge jump off first base, resulting in a stolen base in which catcher Wilson Ramos never attempted a throw and neither middle infielder so much as bothered to break toward second base.
It was the 29th stolen base Strasburg has allowed in 34 career attempts against him, almost all of them attributable to opponents timing his move to the plate.
"I mean, we've worked with him and worked with him," Johnson said. "Too regular. He has the same pattern every time. He's very quick to the plate, but he is locked in his ways."
This one proved costly, because Freddie Freeman sent the next pitch into center field for an RBI single.
"It happens," Strasburg said. "I got caught in having a predictable time to home plate."
That was perhaps the one blemish on Strasburg's otherwise dominant performance. He struck out nine over seven innings, retired the last seven batters he faced and ran his pitch count up to 112.
But as has been the case far too many times this seas, the Nationals ace departed without an opportunity to earn the win due to a lack of run support. After busting out for a quick run in the bottom of the first on Adam LaRoche's RBI double, the Nationals were held silent the rest of the night, save Anthony Rendon's sixth-inning sacrifice fly.
That said, the game was tied 2-2 when Clippard entered for the eighth. It just didn't stay that way for long. The right-hander, who entered with a sparkling 1.85 ERA, grooved a 3-2 changeup to Upton and watched as the ball sailed into the left-field bleachers for the tie-breaking homer.
"The timing of it couldn't be worse, you know?" he said. "It's amazing. It's frustrating."
Clippard was referring to his home run pitch, but he also could have been referring to his teammates' repeated attempts to drive home a runner in a clutch situation. The Nationals managed to put the leadoff man on base in seven of nine innings on Monday, yet scored that man only once. They finished an abysmal 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, five of those at-bats coming during the especially frustrating final three innings.
When Scott Hairston led off the seventh with a double into the left-field corner, the Nationals appeared to be in business. Three of their best hitters (Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond) were due up against unheralded Braves reliever David Carpenter.
Anyone who has paid attention this season, though, knows how this story usually plays out. And sure enough, it happened again on Monday. Werth struck out on a 3-2 fastball at the knees. Harper smoked a line drive to right field, but right at Jason Heyward. And Desmond dribbled the first pitch he saw in front of the plate for an easy, inning-ending out.
"Get runners out there, you've got to get them in," Desmond said. "That's the name of the game. You've got to score more than they do, and we didn't score very many tonight."
They still had another golden opportunity in the ninth against Jordan Walden, filling in as closer for All-Star Craig Kimbrel, who had pitched the previous three nights. Rendon led off with a single, bringing Denard Span to the plate with a chance to move the tying runner into scoring position.
From the dugout, Johnson gave the bunt signal, though not the sacrifice bunt.
"No, it was a bunt for a base hit," the manager explained. "And he just decided to sacrifice. I would've rather seen him try to bunt and get on."
Span didn't misunderstand the sign. He just didn't think he had any chance of beating out a bunt with both corner infielders playing way in expecting the sacrifice.
"In hindsight, I'm like: 'Why would he give me the base-hit bunt?'" Span said. "It's not surprising anybody. Only thing I can think of is a base-hit bunt, you show a little later. Sac bunt, you show earlier, so you're coming in a lot sooner. That's the only logic I could get out of it. I wasn't expecting to get a hit, because they already were way in on the grass."
Span did advance Rendon to second base, and Rendon ultimately swiped third base on a wild pitch. So the Nationals still had the tying run 90 feet away with one out. But Hairston popped out to the catcher, and pinch-hitter Chad Tracy lofted the first pitch he saw to left field for the game-ending out.
As the Braves gathered in the middle of the diamond to celebrate their 11th straight win, the Nationals trudged back to their clubhouse, still dumbfounded by their penchant for losing so many games in this fashion during a season that is now on the brink.
"I sense it, definitely," Hairston said of the frustration inside the Nationals' clubhouse. "Like I said before, it's been a tough road so far. I think collectively we all prepared as best we can, and sometimes you have really good at-bats and it doesn't work out in your favor. That's just the game of baseball. Usually it's rare in sports. When you do everything you can, you should be rewarded for it. Not in this game."