At the end of a brutally frustrating, brutally long and brutally hot Saturday night at the ballpark, one that concluded with an all-too-familiar-result for the home ballclub, the question seemed less to be how the Nationals lost yet another low-scoring game but how they intend to keep themselves from imploding to the point this season no longer becomes salvageable.
It's one thing to lose baseball games. It's another to keep losing them over and over and over in the same fashion, wasting brilliant pitching performances and squandering scoring opportunities left and right.
Add Saturday's 3-1, 10-inning loss to the Dodgers to the ever-growing list of candidates for "Most Frustrating Loss of the Year." Just don't expect the Nationals to succumb to the frustration and take it out on each other.
"I think we're doing fine," shortstop Ian Desmond when asked about the state of clubhouse morale. "I don't think you could do any better than what we're doing. I think a lot of teams, under the situation that we're in, would probably be a little bit more distressed inside the clubhouse than what we've been. I think we're doing a pretty good job, and I think that will pay off in the end."
A positive clubhouse tone is nice, but the only thing that really will pay off in the end for the Nationals will be a dramatic improvement in situational hitting.
For most of the season's first half, the Nationals' offensive woes could be condensed to one simple fact: They weren't putting enough men on base. But over the last few weeks, and especially the last two nights, the problem hasn't been an inability to put guys on base. It's been an inability to bring them home.
Saturday's loss may have been the most egregious example all year. The Nationals tallied 10 hits and four walks against Zack Greinke and six Dodgers relievers. Only one of them resulted in a run: Roger Bernadina's pinch-hit single in the sixth, scoring Chad Tracy from second base.
Otherwise, the Nationals' situational hitting was abysmal. They went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position, leaving them 2-for-21 so far in this series and 6-for-67 over their last nine games. They couldn't bunt properly when the situation called for it. They couldn't get the ball out of the infield when that's all they needed to do. And they couldn't take the bat off their shoulder when down to their final outs.
"We got in great hitting counts, and we didn't do nothing," manager Davey Johnson said. "And that's what's frustrating. ... When we get really ahead in the count and then we can cherry-pick, we're either making it too fine or not putting it hard in play. That's been kind of what we've been doing all year."
As each inning passed and the Nationals squandered each scoring opportunity, the sellout crowd of 41,816 grew more and more restless, on several occasions booing the home team as another zero was posted on the scoreboard. Members of this lineup, still missing Adam LaRoche (flu) but otherwise 100 percent healthy, continue to press in a futile attempt to make something good happen, only to make things worse in the end.
"Maybe everybody wants to get those RBI," catcher Wilson Ramos said. "Maybe a little bit more pressure. But that happens in the game. You have to concentrate more in those situations and try to get a base hit and not look for a homer."
The real frustration over the last two nights, in particular, is that the woeful offensive performances have made some brilliant pitching performances go for naught. On Friday, Stephen Strasburg was the victim. On Saturday, it was Gio Gonzalez's turn.
The left-hander has been on a sustained run of excellence for more than two months now, and he topped it all in this game, tossing six scoreless innings while matching his career-high with 11 strikeouts. And all he had to show for it was a no-decision.
Gonzalez, as always, refused to criticize his teammates for their lack of support.
"It's only two games," he said. "From the looks of it, the Phillies lost today. The Braves lost today. We didn't lose anything. We didn't lose any ground. Just go out there and continue to keep playing your game. I'm pretty sure these guys are going to wake up and swing the bat, and they're going to do their job as a hitting team. You can't hold down this team for long."
Gonzalez actually was in line for the win for a brief moment on Saturday, after Bernadina's pinch-hit single gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead entering the seventh inning. But Drew Storen immediately gave the run back on back-to-back, two-out hits. And that left this game tied, forcing the Nationals to score again to have any chance of winning.
That proved too tall a task for this group. They had a man in scoring position in the seventh but watched as Bryce Harper struck out against lefty reliever Paco Rodriguez and as Jayson Werth grounded out to short to end the inning. They had a man on third base with one out in the eighth but watched as pinch-hitter Scott Hairston struck out on a fastball from Ronald Belisario and as Denard Span flied out against lefty J.P. Howell.
So the game moved into extra innings, at which point the Dodgers struck against Craig Stammen. Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez led off the 10th with consecutive doubles. Ramirez later came around to score an insurance run and add to Stammen's misery. The right-hander has now been scored upon in seven of his last 10 appearances, and several of those poor outings have been compounded by the fact the Nationals play so many nip-and-tuck, low-scoring ballgames.
"Sitting down there in the bullpen watching the game the whole time, you want to do anything you can to help win," he said. "And when you kind of let the team down like that, it hurts a little bit more."
This loss particularly hurt. It was the Nationals' seventh in nine games. And it dropped the preseason World Series favorites to a game below the .500 mark with 65 to play.
Whether they can continue to stick together as one cohesive unit if this keeps up remains to be seen.
"Obviously there's talent involved and also some luck, but you've just got to keep on going, put your best foot forward," Desmond said. "I'm sure everyone's sick of hearing it, but it's got to turn around at some point. And if it doesn't, then we're going to keep on trying until we run out of time."