CHICAGO — It was still very early in a long ballgame, and there was plenty of time left for plenty more to develop at Wrigley Field. But when Ryan Zimmerman was thrown out at the plate in the top of the second inning Friday afternoon, and certainly when Danny Espinosa struck out with two men in scoring position moments later, there was at minimum an unsettling sense that the Nationals had just squandered an opportunity that might come back to haunt them later.
Whether a reversal of fortunes in the second inning would have altered the outcome of what wound up a 7-2 loss to the Cubs is debatable. But it was emblematic of some recent struggles by a Nationals lineup that hasn't been able to make the most of what opportunities they've been given.
"It's one of those things where when you look back, you could do two or three different things," Zimmerman said of his failed decision to try to score from third on a grounder hit just to his left. "But in the moment, you're just kind of reading the ball down and going just to stay out of the double play. I probably could've made a better read, but it's early in the game. I wouldn't say it was the best read I've ever had, but those things happen."
They may happen, but right now they're costing the Nationals, who have combined poor baserunning decisions with poor at-bats in big situations and ineffective pitching to lose three straight games to Milwaukee and Chicago.
The story Friday might have been different had Tanner Roark been able to keep the Cubs from grinding out several at-bats in key spots, leading to a pair of 2-run innings and an elevated pitch count. And it might well have been different had Jerry Blevins not taken the ball for the bottom of the seventh with the Nationals still in the game, down 4-2, only to pour gasoline on the fire and turn that deficit into a 7-2 score.
But the Nationals lineup did itself no favors with its squandered opportunity early on against Cubs right-hander Jason Hammel.
Adam LaRoche's leadoff single and Zimmerman's subsequent RBI double into the left-field corner gave the Nats a quick 1-0 lead. And when Wilson Ramos drew a walk, Hammel was in a real jam, with runners on the corners and nobody out.
But then Ian Desmond hit a chopper to third, and Zimmerman had to make his split-second decision: Try to score, or try to get back to third base?
"A groundball, you want to stay out of the double play," he said. "The ball wasn't hit very hard. I probably could have stayed at third, and he would've had a tough play to either go to second or obviously throw out Desi at first. But it's just one of those things where you're reading [the ball] down and going to stay out of a double play."
Chicago third baseman Luis Valbuena made the easy throw to the plate to nail Zimmerman by a comfortable margin, leaving runners on first and second with one out.
"That's a read for him," manager Matt Williams said. "If the ball is chopped there, he's got the ability to read it. He second-guessed himself after the fact. If the ball's hit to the third baseman's left, we've got a chance there. But the thing that he can do there is try to get into a rundown and get the runners to second and third. He second-guessed himself after that one."
It's been something of a disturbing theme for the Nationals lately. They now have run themselves into four outs on the bases in the first two games of this series, two of them at the plate.
"It's the way we're going to play," Williams said. "We're going to play aggressively. That's our DNA. We're not going to change."
Whether they do it via aggressive baserunning or not, the Nationals will find themselves in something of a desperate situation Saturday. Facing a day-night doubleheader — the annual Chicago Pride Parade in the Wrigleyville neighborhood forced Sunday's game to be moved up a day — they'll need to sweep both games simply to salvage a 4-game split against a Cubs team that owns the NL's second-worst record.
"It's tough," Zimmerman said. "Obviously, doubleheaders are not something that we have often, but we've just got to come out [ready]. We've put ourselves in a position where we need to win both games. That's what we're going to try to do. And then we'll go and enjoy our off-day Sunday."