Nats swept by Braves, lead down to 5 12

Nats swept by Braves, lead down to 5 12
September 17, 2012, 5:09 am
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ATLANTA -- Davey Johnson ambled through an otherwise silent clubhouse late Sunday night -- black sweater, khaki slacks, white sneakers -- and started cracking jokes to every player he encountered.

The Nationals had just lost a sloppy game to the Braves, 5-1, had just been swept by their lone remaining challenger in the NL East and had seen their once insurmountable, 8 12-game lead shrink to 5 12 games at the end of a difficult weekend.

Their left fielder has been out since Tuesday with a left hand injury. Their second baseman is now likely to miss at least the next series with a left shoulder injury that will require an MRI. What had been baseball's best pitching staff all season is starting to show some cracks in the foundation. And what had been the league's most-potent lineup for the last month was silenced the last three days by Atlanta's pitching staff.

None of that, Johnson believes, should overshadow what the Nationals have done over the last 5 12 months, nor give them reason to worry about the 2 12 weeks they still have left in a pennant race that is far from over.

"I feel fine about where we're at," the 69-year-old manager insisted.

That sentiment was echoed among Nationals veterans, who while discouraged by the weekend's events aren't ready to hit the panic button.

"We've put ourselves in a great position," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We've played well all year. There's two weeks left of playing baseball. Everything's right in front of us."

With 16 games to play, the Nationals still hold a magic number of 11 for the division title, a magic number of 3 to clinch at least a wild-card berth. But there are a handful of reasons to be concerned, the latest Espinosa's just-revealed left shoulder issue, which could prove significant.

After missing Wednesday's series finale in New York to attend his grandmother's funeral in Arizona, Espinosa rejoined his teammates for this weekend showdown but looked lost at the plate throughout. He wound up 0-for-11 with nine strikeouts, a pop-up and a double-play grounder. And when his spot in the lineup came up with two outs in the ninth Sunday night, he was surprisingly replaced by Steve Lombardozzi (who struck out to end the game).

Turns out Espinosa has been dealing with left shoulder pain, which he finally revealed to the Nationals coaching staff late in the game, requesting he be benched.

"He's hurting," Johnson said. "I was going to hit for him, and he mentioned to one of the coaches, Rick Eckstein, that he was underwater and he was hurting the team. For him to want to come out ... he's my little Iron Man."

Johnson said Espinosa will be examined Monday afternoon in Washington by team orthopedist Wiemi Douoguih, who will administer an MRI. The club won't know for sure the extent of the injury until the results of that test come back, but Johnson said his second baseman will "probably" miss this week's series against the playoff-contending Dodgers.

Espinosa, through a team spokesman, declined to take questions after the game.

"I'm very concerned about him," said Johnson, who hopes to have left fielder Michael Morse (bone bruise in left hand) back in his lineup Tuesday.

Though the Nationals were silenced at the plate Sunday night and throughout the weekend, they were equally as ineffective on the mound and in the field during the series finale.

Gio Gonzalez, seeking to become the majors' first 20-game winner and bolster his Cy Young Award hopes, labored his way through five-plus innings, needing an astounding 83 pitches just to get through the bottom of the third before settling down somewhat and reaching the sixth.

The left-hander walked four, went to a 3-ball count to eight of the first 14 batters he faced and was yanked without retiring a batter in the sixth. But he somehow managed to only surrender two runs during that time, keeping his team in the game.

"You've just gotta make the adjustment, gotta pitch better," Gonzalez said. "You gotta learn how to pound that strike zone. I think that's where my biggest mistake today was. I wasn't being as aggressive in the first three innings. Then the next two, it was exactly what I should've been doing off the bat."

Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh -- and with Atlanta's lights-out closer Craig Kimbrel unavailable after pitching the previous two nights -- the Nationals were in position to mount a late rally. But then they were done in by two problem areas that hadn't really been problems all year: the bullpen's inability to throw strikes, and the infield's inability to make plays at crucial moments.

Right-hander Craig Stammen got the ball rolling by issuing a one-out walk to Michael Bourn. Reed Johnson then hit a chopper to third, leaving Zimmerman facing a quandary: Charge in and try to make a short-hop grab of the ball and fire either to first or second base for the out, or sit back and wait to catch the ball on a full hop and hope he still had enough time to make the throw.

"With Bourn on first base, if I take a step back and get a big hop, it's going to be tough for me to get the lead runner," he explained. "And then it's going to be a tough play to get Reed running at first, too. It's one of those plays where before the play happens, you say if it goes up, you've got to do whatever you can to get the ball and have a chance to get either one of those guys."

Zimmerman wasn't able to get either guy. He misplayed the short-hop. Worse, he lost sight of the ball as it skipped away into foul territory. By the time he retrieved it, Bourn had raced all the way around to third base.

"I just didn't know where it went after it hit off my glove," he said.

With runners now on the corners and one out, Johnson summoned Sean Burnett to face Jason Heyward in a big spot. The left-hander got what he wanted -- a sharp grounder to first base -- but now Adam LaRoche had to make a decision. Did he have enough time to turn an inning-ending double play? And if so, should he try to get Bourn at the plate or instead try for a 3-6-3 twin-killing?

LaRoche felt his best option was to step on first base and then fire to plate in an attempt to get Bourn. His throw, however, was a bit up the line and prevented catcher Kurt Suzuki from applying the tag in time.

"You know, if I try and roll it the conventional way and we don't get him, that's a run," LaRoche said. "Got some fast guys on the bases, so close to first, try and touch it and go home. Just kind of pulled it up the line. I think if I put in on the money, we've probably got him."

The meltdown continued when Burnett (after intentionally walking Chipper Jones) plunked Freddie Freeman to load the bases with two outs. Dan Uggla then delivered the nail in the coffin: a two-run single that gave the Braves a four-run lead and all but extinguished any hope of a comeback.

Thus the Nationals retreated to their silent clubhouse, concern growing on their faces as banged-up players walked around with ice packs on various injured body parts.

Johnson tried to lighten the mood and remind everyone they're still in the driver's seat. But there, too, was an understanding there's still plenty of work to be done, and the team that just swept them over the weekend isn't going to concede the division title.

"We've had some battles against them," LaRoche said. "They're the team that came back when we were up nine runs in a July game. They're pretty relentless. Watch the scoreboard all year and see how they continue to win and win, and we expected that coming in. It was going to be a dogfight."