Edwin Jackon's performance not enough

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Edwin Jackon's performance not enough

Game in a nutshell: Edwin Jackson was brilliant, striking out 11 and carrying a shutout into the seventh inning. But Jon Niese was equally as dominant, scattering five hits without issuing a walk over 7 13 innings. In the end, this game was decided by a two-batter stretch in the top of the seventh: David Wright drew a leadoff walk, then seconds later Ike Davis sent a two-run homer into the left-field bullpen. And that was it. The Nats never managed to push a run across against Niese or a New York bullpen that boasts the majors' highest ERA (5.05). It was a surprisingly disappointing performance from a lineup that had been inflicting serious damage on opposing pitchers over the last month. And it was particularly disheartening given Jackson's fine start. Thus, the Nationals missed a chance to improve to 30 games over .500 and secure another series victory.

Hitting lowlight: They really didn't have any legitimate scoring opportunities all night, never advancing a runner to third base. But if the Nationals lineup want to look back at one moment when they might have gotten something going, they could point to the bottom of the sixth of what was still a scoreless game. Danny Espinosa led off with a little dribbler down the third-base line for an infield single. Ryan Zimmerman tagged a ball to center field, but it was tracked down by Andres Torres. Michael Morse then struck out looking for the second straight at-bat, and Adam LaRoche was robbed of a hit (maybe extra bases) by Davis, who made a nice scoop at first base. Perhaps the credit should go to Niese and the Mets, but that was a potentially wasted opportunity for the Nationals on a night in which they didn't have many to begin with.

Pitching highlight: Under normal circumstances, you'd think seven innings of two-hit, 11-strikeout ball would be good enough to earn a win. Not on this night for Jackson. The right-hander was absolutely dominant for six innings, giving up only Mike Baxter's early triple without issuing a walk. But with his teammates unable to provide any run support, Jackson entered the seventh with no margin for error. Unfortunately, he walked David Wright to open the inning, then served up a two-run homer to Davis on the very next pitch. A brilliant start by Jackson went for naught.

Key stat: A sellout crowd of 42,662 (second-largest in Nationals Park history) paid to watch pennant race baseball in the District at the same time the local NFL team was playing an exhibition game.

Up next: The series concludes with Sunday's 1:35 p.m. game at Nationals Park. Left-hander Gio Gonzalez will be seeking his league-leading 16th victory against right-hander Jeremy Hefner.

Gonzalez on recent skid: 'I can’t let it spiral out of control'

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Gonzalez on recent skid: 'I can’t let it spiral out of control'

On numerous occasions throughout Saturday night's disappointing start — four, to be exact — Gio Gonzalez found out first hand just how pesky the St. Louis Cardinals lineup can be. 

"We knew they could hit," manager Dusty Baker said. "It's not that easy to hit with runners in scoring position."

Despite striking out the side in the first, Gonzalez  had trouble finishing off the Red Birds in the following frame. He had three Cardinal hitters in two-strike, two-out situations, and they responded with a flurry: A Jedd Gyorko walk, an RBI single by Greg Garcia, and an RBI double by Matt Carpenter (which came after an RBI double from pitcher Adam Wainwright) to make it 4-0. And a few innings later, Gio was once again one strike away from escaping before allowing another RBI two-bagger, this time to Randal Grichuk to extend the lead to 6-2.  

"That out pitch, we didn't have it today with two strikes," said catcher Jose Lobaton. "We needed that fastball in or that curveball in the dirt. And sometimes he threw some curveballs that really got in the dirt, and they didn't swing.....you're gonna find some good hitters, or good days for the hitters, and it's gonna happen, what happened today." 

Indeed, Gonzalez' inability to put hitters away was the story of his night; five of the six earned runs he allowed came with two outs. The result was his shortest outing of the season at 4 2/3 innings. 

"My biggest [disappointment] right now is how much work I’m giving my bullpen," he said afterward. "I can’t stand it.

"I’m a way better pitcher than what I’m showing out there. And it sucks that [the bullpen] guys are constantly picking up my mess. As a pitcher, I pride myself on being the guy that can go the distance and work his tail off."

Gonzalez has now allowed 13 runs over his last two starts, a troubling trend for someone that to this point was having a bounce-back campaign. In the last two outings alone, he's had his ERA rise from 1.93 to 3.57. 

Of course, two poor starts does not a season make, and Gonzalez by and large has shown that he's an improved pitcher over what he was last year. That said, he'll have reclaim his good form sooner rather than later to quell any fears of a regression to 2015 Gio. 

"Just continue to be strong mentally," Gonzalez said. "Just keep finding a way. Eventually it will tilt over and things will start to go my way again. And I think that’s all it is. I’ve got to be more aggressive, more positive on that mound. I can’t let it spiral out of control." 

Gonzalez struggles for second straight outing as Nats fall to Cardinals

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USA TODAY Sports

Gonzalez struggles for second straight outing as Nats fall to Cardinals

Postgame analysis of the Nationals' 9-4 loss to the Cardinals on Saturday night at Nats Park. 

How it happened: The Cardinals offense didn't waste much time in this one, jumping on Nats starter Gio Gonzalez by building a 4-0 second-inning lead thanks to three straight two-out hits with men on base. Washington briefly got back in the game in the bottom of the frame as Ryan Zimmerman launched a two-run home run to cut the deficit to 4-2. 

However, the tough times continued for Gonzalez. He promptly yielded a solo shot to Matt Holliday in the third, and then in the fifth gave up an RBI double to Randal Grichuk to make it 6-2 St. Louis, ending the lefty starter's night earlier than he or the Nats would have liked.

Washington would get two runs back on solo home runs from Bryce Harper and Zimmerman, but the red-hot Cards lineup was simply too much on this night. Matt Adams came through with a pinch-hit two-run double to pad the lead to 8-4 and essentially put things out of reach. 

What it means: After starting the season series off with four straight against the Cardinals, the Nats have now dropped back-to-back games to St. Louis. At 29-21, Washington is still in a virtual tie for first place in the NL East with the New York Mets. 

Another rough outing for Gio: Well, so much for the idea of Jose Lobaton spurring a rebound start for Gonzalez. Even though he was throwing to his usual catcher this time, Gio struggled for the second straight outing, allowing six earned runs on six hits and four walks over 4 2/3 frames. What doomed him the most Saturday? His inability to finish innings when he was ahead in the count. Though he had multiple opportunities in two-strike, two-out situations to exit a frame unscathed, he instead allowed a series of crippling run-scoring hits. Indeed, five of the six runs Gonzalez yielded against the Cards came with two down, a frustrating stat considering that there were moments where he looked like he was going to settle down. 

Daniel Murphy, record breaker: In only his second regular season month with his new team, Daniel Murphy has already etched his name in the Nats record books. His second-inning single was his 41st hit in May, breaking Denard Span's club mark for hits in a month. Murphy's average on the season is now at an eye-popping .390 through nearly two months. 

Up next: The Nats will look to salvage a series split Sunday afternoon as they send Stephen Strasburg (8-0, 2.79 ERA) to the mound to oppose the Cardinals' Michael Wacha (2-5, 5.04). 

Despite hot streak, Anthony Rendon gets the night off versus Cardinals

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Despite hot streak, Anthony Rendon gets the night off versus Cardinals

Though Dusty Baker had already made the call earlier in the week to sit Anthony Rendon for Saturday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals, his third baseman's recent torrid stretch at the plate nearly gave the Nats' skipper second thoughts. 

"I hate to give a guy a day off when they're getting hits and starting to look good," Baker said before Saturday's game. 

Still, he stayed true to his word, giving Rendon the day off and tapping Stephen Drew to take over at the hot corner. 

"I told him [earlier] he'd be out Saturday. I said 'Give me all you got until your day off on Saturday,'" the manager said. "And he did." 

Rendon's hot streak has been a much-needed sigh of relief for the offense, as his previous struggles were reaching the point where Nats fans might have wondered if he'd ever reclaim his 2014 form. That guy —the then 24-year-old who finished fifth in National League MVP voting and was once nicknamed "Tony Two-bags" — had been missing for the last season-plus as he battled either injury or inconsistency. 

But since Rendon was dropped to sixth in the batting order, the almost 26-year-old has slowly started to resemble what he was two seasons ago. In the last 10 games, he's raised his average from .237 to .262 thanks to six multi-hit efforts that included four doubles, a home run and a triple. Baker noted that Rendon had been making great contact all along, and part of his breakout is simply getting those hits to drop. 

"He's kinda been our hard-luck guy," Baker said. 

Rendon had played all 49 of Washington's games prior to Saturday, prompting Baker to describe the day off as "much needed." And when he returns, the Nats have to hope he can continue to be a presence in a lineup that desperately needs someone other than Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy to produce consistently. 

"He's looking good," Baker said. "He's looking real good."