As much as Davey Johnson would like to count on baseball's best pitching staff to lead the way on a nightly basis, the Nationals manager knows it takes more than that to beat a high-powered opponent like the Yankees.
"Knowing you have good pitching is one thing," Johnson said. "But when you play the American League East division, you have to have offense. ... You've got to score a lot to win."
Johnson said this Friday afternoon, about 2 12 hours before his Nationals took the field for the most-anticipated series in the team's brief history. And by night's end, after the Yankees had thumped the home club 7-2 before a sellout crowd of 41,406, the veteran skipper looked mighty prescient.
Sure, there were some pitching miscues along the way, from Gio Gonzalez racking up too many pitches early to relievers Brad Lidge and Michael Gonzalez giving up four runs in a span of three minutes and turning a tight ballgame into a blowout.
But it's tough to ignore the lack of punch from a Nationals lineup that couldn't make the most of two early opportunities and then barely gave itself any more chances the rest of the night.
"We had opportunities, and we just didn't capitalize," Johnson said. "We had men on base early in the ballgame. The right guys up. Just didn't deliver. That's baseball."
The overflow crowd -- the majority of which surprisingly was in place by first pitch -- was primed to explode in the first inning when Gonzalez set the Yankees down in order and when his teammates threatened to score with two on, one out and the heart of the lineup at the plate. But back-to-back strikeouts by Adam LaRoche and Michael Morse killed that potential rally and killed the buzz inside the ballpark.
Two innings later, the scenario nearly repeated itself. With the bases loaded and one out, Morse did deliver an RBI single. But Ian Desmond immediately grounded the first pitch he saw from right-hander Phil Hughes (a 75-mph curveball down in the zone) to short for a tailor-made, 6-4-3 double play that killed another potential rally.
"I feel like I hit curveballs pretty well," said Desmond, who does have a .407 average this season when he puts the first pitch of an at-bat in play. "Just caught it a little out front."
The Nationals only trailed 2-1 at that point, but little did they know they wouldn't have another legitimate scoring opportunity until the ninth, at which point the deficit had grown to six runs.
From Desmond's double-play grounder in the third through LaRoche's strikeout in the eighth, the Nationals put just one man on base against Hughes and relievers Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada.
"When you throw 94, 95 and you can put it wherever you want, it's tough," Ryan Zimmerman said of Hughes. "He did a good job of that."
Complicating matters for the Nationals was the status of their starting pitcher. Though Gonzalez put up solid numbers, striking out eight while allowing just two runs through six innings, he needed an excess of pitches to battle his way through the early portion of the game, leaving him unable to go as deep as his manager would have preferred.
With his pitch count sitting at 107, Gonzalez was allowed to take the mound for the seventh. But his leash was short.
"He was real adamant he wanted to go out in the seventh," Johnson said. "And I wanted him out there. But we're down in the ballgame. I'm not going to take him to his maximum pitches. I was going to go hitter-by-hitter with him."
Turns out Gonzalez only got to face one hitter before getting yanked. Andruw Jones' leadoff single brought Johnson out of the dugout and Lidge out of the bullpen.
"I felt like I could've kept going," said Gonzalez, who has thrown as many as 115 pitches this season. "I felt strong. My arm felt great."
Entrusted with the ball in a one-run game, Lidge immediately put himself into a jam. He let pinch-runner Dewayne Wise steal second without a throw and then walked Russell Martin on eight pitches. Jayson Nix's sacrifice bunt forced the Nationals to intentionally walk Robinson Cano, and that loaded the bases for Derek Jeter.
Lidge's goal in that situation: Get Jeter to hit a groundball to the left side of the infield. And he got exactly that. Except the ball was placed ever-so-perfectly between short and third, just out of Zimmerman's reach and just deep enough in the hole to induce a long, low throw from Desmond that scooted past LaRoche at first base and ultimately allowed two runs to score.
"When I look back on it now, it's kind of frustrating," Lidge said. "Because all of a sudden, you're out of the game. What just happened? I think Martin had a good at-bat, and then after that it was just like ... You can't control results a lot of times. You can control what you do pitching-wise, but sometimes you throw the pitch you want and it doesn't work."
Following the seeing-eye Jeter single, Lidge was removed in favor of Michael Gonzalez, who immediately served up a two-run double to Curtis Granderson. And all of a sudden, a 2-1 deficit was a 6-1 deficit and many Nationals fans among the overflow crowd began heading for the exits.
Thus, the Nationals' six-game winning streak came to an abrupt halt and this highly anticipated series kicked off with a dud of a ballgame from the surprise NL East leaders.
"I think tonight maybe we were a little flat," Lidge said. "We did such a good job on the road trip that we're coming out expecting to win every single game. And that's great. That's the expectations that you want. But I think we just had one of those nights where a lot of groundballs just kind of fell in, hits that weren't really hit that well dropped in and as a result of that they scored some runs. You have to tip your hat to them sometimes."