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Nats swing and miss again

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Nats swing and miss again

PITTSBURGH -- Rarely in his 10-plus months on the job has Davey Johnson expressed the kind of frustration that came pouring out of the Nationals manager's office at PNC Park Wednesday night following a 4-2 loss to the Pirates.

"You've got to make contact," he said. "You can't drive a run in without making contact."

Generally upbeat and positive throughout his tenure with the Nationals, and always the first to give public and private votes of confidence to his players during good times and bad times, Johnson was as upset with his team's performance in this game as he's been on any previous occasion.

Can you blame the 69-year-old skipper after watching his lineup strike out 11 times -- all swings and misses, no called third strikes -- against a quintet of Pirates relievers pressed into service when starter Erik Bedard departed after throwing only eight pitches due to back spasms?

"Sometimes we expand and chase balls early in the count, and we just can't do that," Johnson said. "That's not being a good hitter. We had so many chances. I thought, two or three times, just a little bloop here and we'll win this ballgame. It's just not coming."

There was no singular corner of the clubhouse to place blame on for this one. Poor at-bats came from just about everyone in the lineup. But the final two innings perhaps best exemplified the problem.

Cut to the top of the eighth, with the Nationals trailing 3-2 but threatening after loading the bases with one out. Up stepped Danny Espinosa, the slumping second baseman who did come through the previous inning with a double to left, ultimately scoring on Chad Tracy's sacrifice fly.

This time, Espinosa swung and missed at a 3-2 fastball from right-hander Jason Grilli, stranded the bases loaded on his NL-leading 39th strikeout of the season.

Moments later, Rick Ankiel swung and missed at a 1-2 fastball at his eyelids, killing the potential rally in a pattern that has become all too familiar for the Nationals.

"I wouldn't necessarily say it's a pattern," hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. "I'd say at times it manifests itself. The pressure builds because I believe in a lineup that's best when each guy knows that the guy behind him can do the job. So then you can be patient and be a little more aggressive in your zones, not expanding. And if they want to walk you, pitch around you, whatever, the next guy picks up the load. And at times when that's happened, we just haven't taken advantage of the next guy picking up that load."

Similar events unfolded in the ninth, with closer Joel Hanrahan putting himself in a jam after hitting Steve Lombardozzi in the foot and then serving up a one-out double to Ian Desmond. That left the tying run in scoring position for two of the Nationals' best hitters (Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman) but neither was able to produce with the game on the line.

Harper, who did draw a fourth-inning walk to reach base for the ninth time in 10 big-league games, fell behind to Hanrahan 0-2 and then popped out to the shortstop. Zimmerman, who did double in the eighth, then whiffed at a 3-2 fastball for his third strikeout of the night.

"I worked the count," Zimmerman said. "I got a pitch I could hit. I just didn't hit it."

Though Johnson and Eckstein both preach an aggressive approach at the plate and encourage their hitters to swing with force, both acknowledge more players need to shorten their strokes in certain situations, especially with two strikes.

When it comes down to it, I think we have to get better with two strikes," Zimmerman said. "No matter who it is, we've got to shorten up a little bit maybe, especially in those situations with one out and runners in scoring position. I'm not saying anyone in particular. We've all been, unfortunately, guilty of it sometimes this year."

Johnson said he wasn't prepared to talk about any possible lineup changes -- "I'm getting over this one before I think about tomorrow" -- but it wouldn't be surprising if Espinosa is given Thursday's series finale off and Lombardozzi is given a chance to make only his second start of the season at second base.

If nothing else, Johnson could justify the swap as an attempt to get his team to put more balls in play. Espinosa is striking out in 31.7 percent of his plate appearances this season, the highest rate among all qualifying NL hitters. The two players on the Nationals' roster with the lowest strikeout rate: Harper (9.5 percent) and Lombardozzi (7.0 percent).

Of course, the Nationals' offensive woes aren't confined solely to strikeouts. They've now totaled five or fewer hits in an astounding 11 of 30 games this season.

"I don't know if guys are feeling too much pressure because we're having trouble generating runs but, boy," Johnson said. "Guys, the pitcher's in a jam. Just relax, and if he throws it over, hit it.

"But tonight was especially frustrating. No doubt about it."

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Nationals win 6-2 after Stephen Strasburg leaves in second inning

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals win 6-2 after Stephen Strasburg leaves in second inning

PHOENIX -- Stephen Strasburg left after struggling with his control in the second inning, and the Washington Nationals wrapped up a successful nine-game trip with a 6-2 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday.

There was no word from the Nationals during the game explaining the standout right-hander's departure.

Strasburg, 10-3 with a 3.31 ERA entering the game, uncharacteristically walked the No. 8 and No. 9 batters in the second inning before departing with a 5-0 lead. He threw 51 pitches, 29 strikes.

Brian Goodwin's leadoff homer ignited a four-run first inning off Robbie Ray (9-5), who lasted five innings, allowing five runs.

Bryce Harper singled in the first to extend his hitting streak to 16 games.

Wilmer Difo hit his second home run of the season off reliever T.J. McFarland in the seventh.

Joe Blanton (1-2) got two outs and earned the win.

The NL East-leading Nationals took two of three in Arizona to go 7-2 on the trip.

Nine players batted for Washington in the opening inning. Goodwin started it with a booming shot high above the home run line across the batter's eye in straightaway center.

Difo and Harper singled and Ryan Zimmerman's sacrifice fly made it 2-0. Daniel Murphy walked and Anthony Rendon singled in a run. Jose Lobaton capped the scoring with a two-out RBI single before Strasburg bounced into a fielder's choice to end Ray's 39-pitch inning.

Arizona broke through with two runs in the fifth.

Chris Iannetta had a pinch-hit single with one out and David Descalso walked before Ketel Marte and David Peralta each singled in a run. With runners at first and third and one out, Blanton came on to strike out Paul Goldschmidt and got Chris Owings to ground into a fielder's choice.

The Diamondbacks had runners at second and third with one out in the sixth but Enny Romero struck out A.J. Pollock and Descalso bounced out to second. Romero left the game in the seventh with an apparent injury.

Arizona, 3-6 since the All-Star break, stranded 11 runners.

Washington's Andrew Stevenson, called up from Triple-A Syracuse, was 0 for 2 in his major league debut.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: Washington placed OF Chris Heisey on the 10-day DL. Heisey strained his left groin in Saturday night's 4-3 victory. Additionally, OF Ryan Raburn was placed on the bereavement list.

Diamondbacks: J.D. Martinez appeared in his first game in Arizona as a Diamondback after missing three games with a bruised wrist, the result of being hit by a pitch in his Diamondbacks debut. He walked as a pinch hitter in the seventh.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Washington has Monday off and hosts Milwaukee on Tuesday. RH Edwin Jackson makes his second start for the Nationals.

Diamondbacks: Arizona begins a three-game home series against Atlanta on Monday night. Zack Greinke (11-4, 2.93 ERA), 9-0 with a 2.41 ERA in 11 home starts, goes for the Diamondbacks. R.A. Dickey (6-6, 4.14) counters for the Braves.

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Bryce Harper powers Nationals past Diamondbacks

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Bryce Harper powers Nationals past Diamondbacks

PHOENIX -- The newest additions to the Washington bullpen came through when called upon to help deliver a victory to their new team.

Sean Doolittle stranded the potential tying run by escaping a jam for his second save for Washington, and Ryan Madson tossed a scoreless eighth inning as the Nationals held off the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-3 on Saturday night.

"The game can really speed up on you once you start getting guys on base," said Doolittle, who with Madson arrived in a trade with Oakland earlier in the week. "The crowd and the energy of the stadium can kind of take over and ... you have to be mindful enough to step off the mound, slow the game down a bit, kind of press reset."

Bryce Harper homered and drove in two runs, and starting pitcher Tanner Roark struck out a season-high 11. Roark (8-6) gave up two runs and three hits in seven innings for the NL East-leading Nationals.

"Curveball felt good. Just keep the hitter guessing," Roark said.

Harper hit his 25th home run on a full-count offspeed pitch from Anthony Banda (0-1), who lost in his major league debut.

Chris Iannetta hit a two-out RBI double in the bottom half, but the Nationals opened a 4-1 lead with a three-run sixth.

Harper hit a run-scoring double and scored on Ryan Zimmerman's double, and Anthony Rendon beat out an RBI single that sent Zimmerman home.

"They had a young guy out there that throws the ball really hard, has good command. He's going to be really good in the next couple of years for sure," Harper said of Banda. "Just got him this time and got a few runs up there."

A.J. Pollock tripled in the bottom half and scored on Jake Lamb's groundout, and Arizona reliever Jorge De La Rosa got out of bases-loaded trouble in the seventh when he struck out Harper and Zimmerman.

Doolittle, acquired from Oakland last weekend, walked Lamb leading off the ninth. Iannetta hit a broken-bat grounder to third, and Rendon's throw to second went into right field for an error that put runners on the corners.

Paul Goldschmidt hit a sacrifice fly, Chris Owings flied out and Doolittle struck out Ketel Marte for his second save with the Nationals.

"Madson's been great for us. Doolittle ... he never panics. It was great to see. It's a lot of fun to have a back end like that," Harper said.

Banda allowed four runs and seven hits in 5 2/3 innings, struck out five and walked none. He was optioned back to Triple-A Reno after the game.

"I felt confident. I threw the ball in the zone and kept attacking hitters," Banda said. "I made a couple of mistakes, Harper and the middle of the lineup."