The proper reaction to the Nationals’ four straight losses may not be worry or scorn, but rather amazement. At once, they have the longest losing streak in the National League and the best record in the majors. They still lead the NL East by 4 ½ games, even after the Braves won late last night. Any perceived cracks in their foundation should be placed in that context – the Nationals were good enough for five months that four bad days barely made a dent.
That being the case, it has been an unsightly four-game skid. The Nationals’ offense, after a torrid second-half, has scored six runs in four games. They have made uncharacteristic mistakes by the fistful. The reason could be anything, maybe a lack of focus to or maybe just a random confluence of events. The Phillies’ dominant pitching certainly played a major role — Kyle Kendrick, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee were all excellent.
Health has not helped. The Nationals slogged through the weekend without Ian Desmond and Michael Morse, both of whom hope to return Tuesday. The Nationals have thrived all year through injury, but their absences hurt during the three-game sweep against the Phillies.
“Our offense, we’re two players short,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “We’re minus two pretty good players, and they’re not available. It’s tough being, at times we’ve played one man down but now we’re playing two men down. They can’t hit or do anything.”
Regardless, the Nationals have not played their best:
>>> Teams are stealing at will. This is not a new problem, but opponents are starting to exploit the Nationals pitching staff’s inability to hold runners more and more. The Phillies stole five bases over the weekend, and on four of them the Nationals’ catcher did not even muster a throw. Sunday, Juan Pierre swiped second base on Jordan Zimmermann without drawing a throw.
The Nationals have gotten away with opponents stealing at such a high rate all year — they have caught 15 of 108 on the season but still have the best ERA in the league. Their pitchers have focused on their stuff rather than base runners, and for the most part the sacrifice has been worth it. But in the playoffs, more detailed advanced scouting magnifies every shortcoming. The Nationals have to find a way to improve.
>>> Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche haven’t been hitting for power. Morse and Desmond have been two of the Nationals’ best power threats, and with them out of the lineup the middle of the Nationals’ order had little punch. Since Aug. 5, Zimmermann has hit four doubles and one homer, while LaRoche has three doubles and no homers, his debacle of a close call yesterday notwithstanding. Zimmerman is hitting .288 over those 20 games, while LaRoche is batting .192.
>>> Friday night, the Nationals had one last chance to erase a two-run deficit in the ninth inning. Danny Espinosa, representing a run that essentially meant nothing, was thrown out trying to steal second. Johnson originally said Espinosa had the green light and went on his own. The next day, he said Espinosa had been given a sign from third base coach Bo Porter, who was trying to keep the Nationals out of a double play. Either way, Johnson did not want the attempt to happen. It’s awfully late in the season for any kind of sign mix-ups to be happening.
>>> Johnson was not happy Sunday with the slider that Tom Gorzelanny hung to Laynce Nix with an 0-2 count, which resulted in a solo homer. The Nationals’ bullpen let the Phillies tack on an insurance run in all three games over the weekend.
>>> The Nationals’ worst moment came on LaRoche’s drive off the railing on the right field wall Sunday. Both he and Jayson Werth assumed a home run, only for Werth to move up one base as LaRoche was tagged out after the ball bounded back into play.
“One of my rules is if you hit a hard groundball to the shortstop and you don’t run down there, you’re taking it for granted that he’s going to catch it and make a good throw,” Johnson said. “That’s a losing attitude. Same way on that play there. If you assume when the ball’s hit up there like you think it’s gone, and the ball’s still in play, that’s a losing attitude.”
>>> The Nationals’ trouble started, really, in the ninth inning Wednesday against the Braves. They entered trailing 2-1 and then fell apart on the way to a 5-1 loss. Zimmerman heaved a ball over LaRoche’s head. Kurt Suzuki rifled a throw into the dirt while trying to catch Michael Bourn stealing at third, leading to a run.
The sloppy inning set a tone the Nationals still haven’t snapped. It has not been ever-present — the Nationals, for example, played fabulous defense yesterday behind Jordan Zimmermann before he came unglued in the fifth. But they have not been very good. They can take heart knowing they have the room to fix their problems, but they have to do it quick.
“Mikey and Desmond being out kind of switched up the lineup,” Werth said. “We’re a little banged-up, but we’ve been dealing with that all year. We’ll go to Miami, get those two games and we’re back home in front of our fans. That’ll be good.”
FROM THE POST
John Feinstein says the Nationals should let Stephen Strasburg pitch if his arm feels good.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 7, Gwinnett 0: Sandy Leon went 3 for 4 with two doubles. Carlos Rivero went 3 for 5. Jeff Mandel allowed no runs in nine innings on six hits and no walks, striking out four. He lowered his ERA at Class AAA to 2.70.
Harrisburg was postponed.
Frederick 10, Potomac 7: Matt Skole went 2 for 4 with a double and a walk. He’s hitting .318 with an .877 OPS over 11 games at Potomac. Kevin Keyes went 2 for 4 with a double and a walk.
Hagerstown was canceled.
Auburn 4, Mahoning Valley 0: Brett Mooneyham allowed no runs in six innings on one hit and two walks, striking out three. Craig Manuel went 2 for 3 with a walk. Estarlin Martinez went 1 for 4 with a homer.