Monday, April 25, 2011 10:12 p.m.
Updated at 11:56 p.m.
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By Mark Zuckerman
PITTSBURGH -- At the end of a long (and very wet) road trip, the Nationals could only look to the heavens and ask: Why us? Why does it seem to rain everywhere we go?
"April showers," John Lanann muttered. "I can't wait for April to be over. Let's go to May."
Lannan, of all people, has a right to feel that way. He's made five starts now this season, three of which have been disrupted in some fashion by Mother Nature. His season debut included a 55-minute rain delay in the fourth inning. His fourth scheduled start last week in St. Louis was postponed altogether. And his fifth start, Monday in Pittsburgh, featured a 21-minute interruption that completely altered the course of this game.
The Nationals were careful not to blame this 4-2 loss to the Pirates on the conditions. But the look of exasperation in their eyes said it all.
"There's nothing you can do about it," said manager Jim Riggleman, whose team has experienced three postponements and three in-game delays in 3 12 weeks. "It's Maryland, it's Pennsylvania in April, and you're going to get that. We've dealt with it before, and we may not be past it. So it's just a situation you've got to deal with, and no excuses."
Nope, no excuses for a game that played out like two separate entities. Before the brief downpour that forced the grounds crew to bring out the tarp and sent what few fans were here at PNC Park scurrying for cover, the Nationals were running on all cylinders. They had jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first thanks to three straight hits from Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche. And Lannan was cruising along, having faced the minimum through three innings.
And then, the fateful bottom of the fourth. The rain was already starting to pick up when Lannan issued a one-out walk to Jose Tabata, and a waterlogged ball may have caused Werth to throw wide of the plate on Neil Walker's two-out single to right. Catcher Wilson Ramos couldn't handle the one-hop throw, the ball wound up in the Pirates' dugout, and Tabata was awarded the plate to trim the Nationals' lead to 2-1.
Still, Lannan battled and threw a first-pitch strike to Steve Pearce, just as the rain really started coming down. The left-hander said he would have been fine continuing the at-bat, but umpire Phil Cuzzi motioned for the grounds crew, so the Nationals jogged off the field.
"The rain, when they called it, it wasn't that big of a factor," Lannan said. "I just threw a first-pitch strike to Pearce. And after that, I thought I was going to get him. So I was kind of shocked he called it in that situation."
The delay lasted only 21 minutes, but Lannan (who rode a stationary bike to stay loose) did appear out-of-whack when he returned. He wound up throwing four of his first five pitches for balls, walking Pearce. Then he allowed a two-run double to Brandon Wood, followed by an RBI single to Chris Snyder.
Just like that, the Nationals' 2-1 lead was a 4-2 deficit.
"I felt good warming up, but I wasn't able to make pitches," Lannan said. "I was up in the zone. And that was the game right there."
It was, but only because the Nationals' lineup went into hibernation mode after the delay. Six of the first 13 batters they sent to the plate against Pirates left-hander Paul Maholm reached safely. Only two more reached at all the rest of the night, both of them coming in the ninth inning against closer Joel Hanrahan (who still recorded the save by getting both Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel to look at strike three.
Thus concluded the Nationals' latest night of offensive futility. There were signs Sunday afternoon the lineup was perhaps on the verge of breaking out. By the end of the day Monday, things seemed to be right back where they started.
"That's the way it goes," LaRoche said. "You're not going to be hot every night. And we sure weren't tonight."
There are no shortage of excuses the Nationals could be using for their offensive woes. They've been without Ryan Zimmerman for more than two weeks. Werth needed two hits Monday to raise his season average to .218. All the rainouts and off-days have disrupted players' rhythms and routines in a sport that generally is played every day.
The Nationals aren't making excuses, though. They were stewing after Monday night's loss, knowing they had just lost an eminently winnable ballgame.
"I know they're a little frustrated with it," Riggleman said of the lack of offensive production. "I know I'm repeating myself, but my feeling about it is we've got to win the ballgame anyway. We can't only win if we're going to hit. We've got to win when we're not hitting."
It's tough to win, though, when you only produce two runs on five hits. Lannan -- and the defense behind him -- would have to have been perfect Monday night, and neither was.
Despite their struggles, the Nationals still own a 10-11 record heading home to face the last-place Mets. They continue to get quality pitching on a near-daily basis, and they've managed to scratch together enough runs to win their share of games.
There is, however, a sense this team should have a better record at this point, that all the quality pitching has been squandered by a lineup that just can't find its groove.
"That's Major League Baseball," Jerry Hairston said. "You're going to have your ups and downs in this game. You're as hot as the next starting pitcher, so you've just got to keep grinding and keep battling. We feel like we have a good team. If we keep working hard things will turn around."
But what about the weather?
"It'd be nice to get some sunny days," Hairston admitted.
Don't hold your breath, Jerry. Forecast for Tuesday night's game in the District: 74 degrees, 30 percent chance of thunderstorms.
As the Nationals have found out this month: When it rains, it pours.Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.