Nationals' downward spiral continues

Nationals' downward spiral continues
July 25, 2013, 1:00 am
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Questionable call halts Nats rally in 9th

The continued devolution of the Nationals nearly reached epic proportions Wednesday night when they entered the bottom of the sixth inning against Francisco Liriano without having recorded a base hit.

In the end, the events of the ninth inning in a 4-2 loss to the Pirates might actually have proved more painful than a no-hitter.

After squandering Stephen Strasburg's best start of the season and watching as relievers Drew Storen and Fernando Abad turned a 1-run deficit into a 4-run chasm in the top of the ninth, the Nationals nearly stormed all the way back in the bottom of the inning, only to see the game end on a blown call by umpire Laz Diaz.

"It's no secret that the ball definitely isn't bouncing our way," said Denard Span, who hit the groundball that resulted in the controversial, game-ending double play. "That wasn't the story of the game tonight, but anything could've happened if that play isn't called there."

Who knows what would have happened had Diaz correctly seen Wilson Ramos elude second baseman Neil Walker's tag on the final play of the game? The Nationals still would have trailed by two runs, with one out and two men on base. But it was a fittingly bitter way for this club's sixth straight loss to go in the books.

"Not even close. He never tagged me," Ramos said. "He told me: 'He tagged you. I didn't hear, but I saw it.' I said: 'Sure, you didn't see anything. Not even close.' But I don't know, maybe he wanted to go home."

As what remained of a crowd of 33,636 booed with displeasure, Davey Johnson jogged out of the dugout to complain with Diaz. The Nationals manager, though, knew his argument was in vain, just another new low point during a miserable two-week stretch that has seen his club lose 11 of its last 13 games, fall to five games below the .500 mark and a full nine games out of both the NL East and NL Wild Card races.

The Nationals have run out of answers, unable to find a way to stop the bleeding and at least give themselves a fighter's chance at getting back into the race. Even when they got sheer domination out of Strasburg on Wednesday, they found a way to squander it and hand their Opening Day starter yet another hard-luck loss.

Strasburg (5-8 despite a 2.85 ERA) was brilliant in holding the Pirates to one run (Pedro Alvarez's homer) and two hits over eight electric innings. He struck out a season-high 12 batters without walking any and threw a career-high 80 strikes out of 118 total pitches.

"That's an outstanding job for him," Ramos said. "For me, that's the Stephen everybody knows."

"I didn't get to see him that first year," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Strasburg's dazzling rookie campaign in 2010. "I've watched tape of him evolve from a guy who was just pretty much letting it eat to a guy who can do whatever he wants out there at times. I know he's had some challenges, but he's learned: Repeat the delivery, control the running game, mound presence, rhythm, tempo, delivery. It's impressive."

Strasburg, though, remains the least-supported starting pitcher in baseball. He has now allowed two or fewer earned runs in 14 starts, yet has earned the win in only four of those games.

Through it all, the 25-year-old has refrained from publicly (or privately) criticizing his teammates. On Wednesday night, he took it another step, offering a passionate defense of the guys who haven't been able to support him all season.

"I think, when things get tough, your true colors really come out," he said. "It's all about what type of person you are. Are you the type that's going to sit there and look in the mirror and do everything you can to be better out there, or are you going to start pointing fingers? I don't think there's a single guy in the clubhouse who's going to start pointing fingers. Every single guy in here is responsible, and we all want to win just as bad as any other team out there."

It wouldn't have taken much for Strasburg to earn the win on Wednesday, but the Nationals' woebegone lineup was completely shut down by Liriano, who didn't surrender a hit until there were two outs in the sixth and departed after 7 2/3 innings without allowing one runner reach third base.

The Nationals only had three opportunities all night with runners in scoring position, going 0-for-3. That leaves them a mind-boggling 6-for-81 in those situations over their last 13 games.

"We faced a tough Liriano today," said Span, a former teammate of the left-hander in Minnesota. "Yesterday we faced a tough pitcher (rookie Gerrit Cole). We've been facing a lot of tough pitchers lately, so you've got to give them a little bit of credit. Still no excuse for why we haven't been hitting the ball. We've got to find a way to do better. There's no excuse."

Despite all that, the Nationals only trailed 1-0 when the ninth inning arrived. But in a recurring theme, Storen couldn't hold the deficit there and (with assistance from Abad, who replaced him with two outs in the inning) allowed the opposition to score some key insurance runs. By the time the inning ended, the deficit was 4-0.

"For me, it's location," Ramos said of Storen, who now owns a 5.40 ERA. "He has to concentrate a little bit more. For me, he has to do that. He's got a good arm, got good stuff. He just needs to go out there and get confidence. Trust himself, throw the ball the best he can."

Those three insurance runs loomed large by night's end, because Jayson Werth delivered a two-run homer off Justin Wilson in the bottom of the ninth, a blast that only trimmed the lead to 4-2. When Ramos singled with one out, the Nationals brought the tying run to the plate. But Span grounded the ball to Walker, who lunged in an attempt to tag Ramos and despite coming up short convinced Diaz he had made the play that ended the game.

Blown call or not, nearly completed rally or not, the Nationals can't do anything but shake their heads in disbelief at this prolonged stretch of losing.

"We try to take some positives out of the way we've been coming back a little bit," Span said. "We haven't been just giving up at the end. We're trying to battle. We're just trying to get things going right now. It may not look like it on TV or when you guys are watching us, but everybody's giving it the best they can."