Nats lose for ninth time in last 12 games
The Nationals didn't just win 98 games last year and reach the postseason for the first time in club history, they did so without putting themselves through any prolonged stretch of legitimate adversity.
That may have left everyone — uniformed personnel, fans and media alike — to assume the 2013 campaign would proceed with nary a bump in the road with a roster that didn't appear to have any true flaws cruising along toward another division title and then October success.
Three weeks in, it's already become obvious things won't come as easily to the Nationals this season as they did last season. After a 4-2 loss to the Cardinals on Wednesday, their fourth straight, they suddenly find themselves in a wholly unfamiliar position: Below the .500 mark, with growing questions about their ability to score enough runs to win games.
"What we're going through, it's the first time this team has dealt with expectations, and there's something to be said about that," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "But we'll adjust. The league has adjusted to us; we'll adjust to the league. We'll be fine. We've got too much talent."
They may have talent, but that's not winning ballgames right now, not with a lineup struggling to produce hits in key spots and pressing to try to make something big happen, only exacerbating the problem.
It happened during Sunday's 2-0 loss to the Mets, it happened during the first two games of this series against St. Louis (losses by counts of 3-2 and 2-0) and it happened again during Wednesday's matinee, in which the Nationals found themselves in an early 3-0 hole and could never produce the rally that got them back in it.
Not that they didn't have plenty of chances, especially late. They put seven men on base between the sixth and eighth innings but wound up stranding five of them amid a flurry of strikeouts.
Ian Desmond ended two of those innings by whiffing with two out and at least one man on base, swinging through Jaime Garcia's 3-2 slider in the sixth and then taking a mighty hack at Trevor Rosenthal's 0-2 fastball in the eighth, trying to make big-time contact but drawing nothing but air.
"I swing for big-time contact every time," Desmond said. "It is what it is. Sometimes you hit it. Sometimes you miss. But you gotta keep on swinging."
Even more frustrating than those strikeouts, though, was the sequence that killed a seventh-inning rally. With runners on the corners, one out and contact hitter Steve Lombardozzi at the plate, manager Davey Johnson decided to send Jhonatan Solano on a 3-2 pitch, hoping to avoid a double play grounder. Except that left them vulnerable to a worse double play: of the strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out variety.
The crowd of 33,694 groaned with displeasure as Lombardozzi swung through the pitch and Solano was easily thrown out at second base.
"He hits a lot of groundballs; he usually makes contact," Johnson said of Lombardozzi, who hadn't struck out in 28 previous at-bats this season. "Just a microcosm. He was a little more aggressive, the ball was running off the plate and he swings at it."
Those botched rallies wound up making a hard-luck loser out of Stephen Strasburg, who labored through a three-run first inning but then rebounded to post a quality start and complete seven frames without letting another Cardinal cross the plate.
Strasburg owns a 3.16 ERA, but his record now stands at a stunning 1-4, as many losses as he suffered through the first 17 starts of his career.
"You know what? I'm in it with all these guys," the right-hander said. "We're all frustrated. We all want to go out there and win every single game. It just seems like the ball's not really dropping in our favor. It seems like we hit it right to where they're at every time. That's not going to happen for the entire year. We've just got to keep grinding, stick together and give it everything we have every single day. That's all you can really do."
There are a few things a manager can do to try to lift his club out of a spiral, and Johnson plans to do one of those things for Thursday's series opener against the Reds. Lombardozzi will be in the lineup, near the top, likely playing third base in place of struggling rookie Anthony Rendon. Werth, meanwhile, will be bumped down in the lineup, possibly to the cleanup position to provide more protection for Bryce Harper while Ryan Zimmerman remains on the disabled list.
"Just shake some things up a little bit," Johnson said. "A little different roles."
Is there a benefit to that kind of knee-jerk lineup change? Maybe, maybe not. But at this point, the Nationals feel like they've got to do something — anything — to try to get themselves back on the track everyone expected them to take when this season began only three weeks ago.
"I think we need to jumble it up and we need to switch the mojo a little bit," Werth said. "Somebody was talking about Phil Jackson the other day. We need to call him up, have him come in here and burn some sage or something. We're not very feng shui right now."