Darwin Barney’s double off Henry Rodriguez provided the final salvo in a torturous loss for the Nationals, who had moved to the precipice of a rare high-water mark. Had they turned their lead after the fourth into a four-game sweep of the Cubs, they would have moved to three games over .500 for the first time since May 2010. It would have ensured, at worst, a .500 record entering the all-star break.
Instead, they capped a string of improbable victories with a loss more improbable than anything that preceded it. Afterward, Manager Davey Johnson blamed himself for keeping starter Livan Hernandez in the game one batter too long. The Nationals entered the sixth inning up 8-0. After five consecutive two-out hits, culminating with Blake DeWitt’s three-run missile of a homer off the foul pole, the Cubs had turned an eight-run laugher into a two-run nail-biter.
“That was a tough one,” Johnson said. “I’m going to have a tough time sleeping tonight on that one.”
The Nationals’ clubhouse fell silent, but only out of protocol and decorum, not depression. Players insisted this loss, even with its crushing nature, would be no different from any other. They had won this series, and they would try to win the series that starts Friday against the Colorado Rockies.
“I think you’ve got to look at the big picture here,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “We’ve been playing some really good baseball. A loss is a loss, however you want to throw it up there. I don’t think this loss is that big a deal. We can get over this one, no problem.”
Their pitching staff has carried the Nationals all season, but Thursday it only produced a list of culprits. After Hernandez started the meltdown, three relievers pitched, and all of them gave up an earned run. The biggest blow came when Carlos Pena smoked the first pitch Sean Burnett threw — a slider over the plate with one out in the seventh — into the first row in right for a two-run homer that tied the score at 8.
“I just need to pick up my slack,” said Burnett, whose ERA rose to 5.76 after his sixth blown save. “I’ve been pretty bad all year, making guys throw more pitches than they have to by coming in for me. I need to step up and start executing.”