PHILADELPHIA — Though they've managed to be more productive at the plate than most would have thought given the prolonged absence of three key lineup regulars, the Nationals still aren't taking full advantage of the mountains of opportunities they keep giving themselves.
Take Sunday's 1-0 loss at Citizens Bank Park, a game in which Gio Gonzalez pitched brilliantly for 7 1/3 innings and gave his teammates every opportunity to scratch out the two runs that would have been necessary to beat the Phillies. Instead, the Nationals went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, quashing the few opportunities they had against a surprisingly effective Roberto Hernandez, and left town having missed a chance both to win this series and take over first place in the NL East.
"It happens," said Gonzalez after taking a hard-luck loss. "It's baseball. Can't do anything about it. There will be nights where these guys give me 7-8 runs. I'm still proud of them. They went out there and gave me a chance."
The Nationals have been giving themselves a chance just about every night they take the field. They've shown an uncanny ability to come from behind and win games, often delivering clutch hits at just the right time.
But if it still feels like they've missed opportunities to do even more, they have. Despite a .253 total team batting average, 13th in the majors, they're hitting only .219 with runners in scoring position, 25th out of 30 MLB clubs.
Whether such stats matter is the subject of much debate around the sport. Manager Matt Williams doesn't believe that trend will continue and points to the number of opportunities his team has had with runners in scoring position (330, ninth-most in the majors) as the most-encouraging sign of what is yet to come.
"We talk about opportunities and creating those opportunities," Williams said. "We've had some really key hits over the course of the season so far. We wouldn't have come back so many times if we didn't. Today wasn't our day. But I like where our offense is. That number is a little skewed, I think, per our team and the way we've been playing."
The Nationals were stymied Sunday by a surprising presence on the mound. With Cole Hamels scratched due to flu-like symptoms, the Phillies instead turned to Hernandez, the former All-Star and Cy Young Award finalist who claimed to be named Fausto Carmona until a 2011 investigation proved he falsified his birth records.
Whatever his name, the guy who pitched Sunday for Philadelphia looked a whole like the guy who won 19 games for the Indians in 2007, especially after he got himself out of a first-inning jam.
The Nationals put three straight men on base in the opening frame yet never advanced one of them as far as third base. That's because Kevin Frandsen was thrown out trying to go first-to-third on Jayson Werth's single to left, hindering the Nats' early scoring opportunity.
"I'll go a hundred times out of a hundred on that one," Frandsen said. "Especially with one out. Knowing J-Dub is aggressive behind me and is going to be on second base. One guy is going to be in scoring position, or two guys. And it took a perfect throw to get it. I'm not second-guessing that at all."
Neither was his manager.
"Was it wise? Yeah," Williams said. "We want to be aggressive. We want to make sure that we're putting pressure. At the end of the day, it looks like a play that if we didn't do, we may have a different opportunity. I've got no problem with it."
Little did anyone realize at the time it would be the Nationals' best chance to score the entire day. They did get two more men to third base, but each came with two outs and was followed by a strikeout (Gonzalez in the top of the second, Anthony Rendon in the top of the eighth).
With one final opportunity against Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth, Sandy Leon delivered a two-out single to right. Zach Walters, the last man on the bench other than backup catcher Jose Lobaton, battled Papelbon and twice sent long fly balls down the right-field line that were pushed foul thanks to a strong crosswind before striking out on a high fastball to end the game
"He had one heck of an at-bat there, giving himself two chances," Frandsen said. "You really can't ask for anything better than that. He battled. I wouldn't say he battled. I thought he owned that at-bat. Unfortunately at the end, one pitch."
And so the Nationals head home on a two-game losing streak, 17-14 overall but only 1/2-game out of first place thanks to a Braves club that has lost six straight.
Reinforcements are coming soon. Outfielder Scott Hairston could come off the disabled list as soon as Monday. Wilson Ramos has three homers in three rehab games and could be back before the end of the Nationals' upcoming series against the Dodgers. Doug Fister will make his season debut Friday in Oakland. And Ryan Zimmerman is expected to return from a broken thumb in roughly two weeks.
"I have no worries with this team," Gonzalez said. "These guys are awesome, they work hard, they come in ready every day. I don't see nothing wrong with us. We're going to keep battling and keep giving people a run for their money."