There are nights when a manager will explain a loss away by claiming his guys hit the ball hard, but everyone knows it's mere lip service for an otherwise lackluster performance at the plate. And then there are nights when a manager will say it, and there isn't a soul in the building who could reasonably question the validity of that statement.
When Matt Williams and his Nationals talked about their hard-hit balls during Friday night's 2-1 loss to the Phillies, they weren't trying to sugarcoat a bad effort. They genuinely had nothing else to say about this game, a game they felt like they played well enough to win if not for the fact every ball they squared up seemed to head straight into somebody's glove.
"I think Susan Sarandon said it: 'Hit 'em where they ain't,'" Williams said, channeling Annie Savoy in "Bull Durham." "We didn’t do a very good job of that tonight. But it's like, what can you do? Once you hit it, you can't steer it. They just happened to be standing there. Eight or nine of them, probably."
That's not an exaggeration. The Nationals had seven line outs in the game, one of them turning into a double play. They also drove two balls to the warning track that were hauled in by Phillies outfielders.
"That's all you can do," Williams said. "They squared them up tonight. They just didn't find any holes."
Such is the state of things right now for a Nationals lineup that less than two weeks ago was the most potent group in the NL yet has fallen on hard times since Ryan Zimmerman was lost to a significant hamstring strain.
In the 17-game stretch from June 30-July 22 in which they fielded a healthy lineup for the first time since Opening Day, the Nationals hit a collective .281 with a .450 slugging percentage, scoring an average of 5.4 runs per game. In nine games since Zimmerman went down, they have hit .229 with a .262 slugging percentage, scoring an average of 3.0 runs per game.
"You just can't replace a guy like Ryan Zimmerman," said Jayson Werth. "So, yeah, we're going to miss him. But we're going to have to pick up, we're going to have to make do, we're going to have to win games without him. It's just what good teams do. They make adjustments and pick each other up."
One thing that would help the Nationals' offset the loss of Zimmerman: hitting the ball over the fence. They did it 17 times in those 17 games when everything was clicking. They've done it zero times in the nine games since, shattering the previous club record for a homer-less drought of six games (set three times between 2005-13).
"You try to hit home runs, you don't," Werth said. "It's not something you can think about. It's just one of those things."
All the Nationals can do, really, is continue to have a good approach at the plate, continue to work the count against opposing pitchers and continue to hit the ball hard. Even if that didn't make much difference Friday night.
The Nationals scored their lone run thanks mostly to an Adam LaRoche popup that traveled about 50 feet, landed between a pair of confused Phillies, one of whom then proceeded to fire the ball into the right-field corner, giving LaRoche three free bases.
It figures that the worst-struck ball of the evening produced a run, while all those other well-struck balls produced nothing.
The seven line-drive outs: 1) Asdrubal Cabrera to first base in the bottom of the second, a double play, 2) Doug Fister to left field two batters later, 3) Ian Desmond to the second baseman in the bottom of the fourth, 4) Cabrera to the shortstop later that inning, 5) Werth to third base leading off the sixth, 6) Cabrera yet again to the left fielder in the seventh and 7) Denard Span right back up the middle to pitcher Roberto Hernandez in the bottom of the eighth.
Add LaRoche's drive to the warning track in center in the sixth and Anthony Rendon's ball to the base of the wall in left to end the eighth, and you've got yourself heartbreak hotel.
"It is baseball," said Fister, who took the loss despite seven innings of 2-run ball. "Those guys hit the ball hard. Three or four, at least, that were right at guys and right at the pitcher. Those balls were hit right on the screws, and there's nothing you can do about those. It's frustrating: You hit a ball hard, and it doesn't fall. But that's the game, and you gotta come back tomorrow ready to play and ready to win."
The Nationals did give it one last shot in the ninth, getting back-to-back, 1-out singles from LaRoche and Desmond against Jonathan Papelbon. As the crowd roared, trying to will this team to a dramatic rally, Bryce Harper struck out on a 3-2 splitter and Cabrera struck out on three pitches to end the game and leave everybody muttering to themselves as they headed home.
"I liked our chances," Werth said. "We had him on the ropes a little bit. But he's a veteran closer. He's been doing it a long time, and he knows what he's doing. We just came up a little short tonight. We've still got a chance to split the series and get the next two. We'll be alright."