Nats fall short against the Pirates
This is what it has come to for the Nationals. After falling for the fourth straight game, the ninth time in 11 games, after falling to three games below the .500 mark for the first time in nearly two years, after an emotional day that saw their popular hitting coach fired, they were left citing the positives from their 6-5 loss to the Pirates.
Despite trailing by five runs early, the Nationals rallied to get within a run and were 180 feet from tying the game in the bottom of the ninth. Was it wrong to consider this an encouraging development, given the situation this team is in right now?
"No, not at this point," Adam LaRoche admitted. "We're looking for anything positive to take out of a ballgame, and that was a great run late. Tying run in scoring position and one hit away. You can't expect to drive that run in every time. We don't give ourselves that many opportunities right there. So it was nice to have."
Maybe it's all the Nationals can do, cling to whatever glimmer of hope there is on a given night. There wasn't much else to be hopeful about on Monday, a day that left manager Davey Johnson weathered and worn down.
Adamantly opposed to general manager Mike Rizzo's decision to fire Rick Eckstein, Johnson was in a daze before the game while discussing the dismissal of an associate and friend he called "the best hitting instructor in baseball." Several hours later, following the loss, the 70-year-old skipper looked even more beaten.
"This is a bad day for me, you know?" he said. "I'm glad it's over with."
A victory might have salvaged the day, though it still would have remained bittersweet for those who didn't agree with Eckstein being made a scapegoat for the continued struggles of a lineup full of accomplished hitters. It only made things worse when the Nationals found themselves in a 5-0 hole four innings into their series opener with the Pirates.
Dan Haren was the primary culprit, serving up a pair of towering, two-run homers to Andrew McCutchen, whose domination of this franchise is starting to reach mind-boggling proportions. In 27 career games against the Nationals, the All-Star center fielder now is batting .431 with 13 homers, 26 RBI and a 1.408 OPS.
"That's kinda been the story of the year for me: Every mistake I've made, I've paid the price for it," said Haren, whose 21 homers allowed lead the majors. "If I could take those two pitches back, things would be a lot different. But the fact of the matter is, I can't."
Playing without any hitting coach in the dugout — replacement Rick Schu won't arrive until Tuesday — the Nationals were tepid at the plate early on, not only failing to record a hit through four innings against Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton but failing to even get a ball out of the infield.
LaRoche's leadoff homer in the fifth finally broke the silence, and two innings later, Jayson Werth launched a two-run shot to reduce the deficit to 5-3. For the first time all night, the crowd of 29,200 had reason to perk up.
That feeling, though, dissipated quickly when the Nationals bullpen allowed an insurance run in the top of the eighth that really proved costly by night's end. Ian Krol put the first two men he faced on base. Drew Storen then let one of them score when he uncorked a wild pitch and couldn't hang onto Wilson Ramos' throw back to the plate.
Storen, who had only one previous wild pitch this season, attributed this one to a poor grip caused by the July humidity. He knew that little mistake could become magnified, though, as it was when his teammates rallied later to draw within one run.
"That's the way it is at this level," Storen said. "These games, there's not a lot of margin for error. That's what happens when you make a mistake. People make you pay for it. It's time for us to make other people start paying for their mistakes."
The Nationals nearly did just that in the bottom of the ninth, coming oh-so-close to pulling off a dramatic rally. Werth's second homer of the night and his fourth in two days trimmed the lead to 6-5. Denard Span's one-out double put the tying runner in scoring position. And then, a potentially devastating injury to Pirates closer Jason Grilli gave the Nationals one last shot.
After throwing his first pitch to Steve Lombardozzi with two outs in the ninth, Grilli walked off the mound writhing in pain, clutching his right arm. A survivor of Tommy John surgery from a decade ago, the All-Star reliever looked forlorn as he departed the field next to a trainer. The Pirates later said he was suffering from "right forearm discomfort," but that's often codeword for a major elbow injury.
With journeyman Vin Mazzaro now pressed into emergency closer duties, the Nationals had an opportunity to flip the outcome of this game. But Lombardozzi grounded out to second, stranding the tying run in scoring position and sending his team to yet another frustrating loss.
Not that things got any easier for the Nationals when they had to relive an excruciating day and offer thoughts on the state of a team whose season appears on the verge of falling apart for good.
"There's great character on this ballclub," Johnson said. "I've said it 100 times. I felt a lot of energy tonight, as I do a lot of nights. When you swing the bats good, you pitch good, that's what sets the ball rolling. It's called momentum. We just are fighting to get a little momentum."