Haren whiffed Adrian Gonzalez with a chest-high, 88-mph cutter. One more out, and he would keep the game scoreless. Andre Ethier, a left-handed hitter, walked to the plate with first base open. But Johnson did not want Haren pitching with the bases loaded, and anyway, Haren feels just as comfortable facing lefties.
Still, Haren knew he could be careful with Ethier. He started him with two pitches out of the zone, the second of which Ethier swung through to make the count 1-1. For the next pitch, Haren intended to throw a splitter in the dirt. Instead, it remained up and over the plate. Ethier lashed it up the middle, and Kershaw and Kemp cruised across home plate to give the Dodgers a 2-0 lead.
“Going against a guy like Kershaw, you have to be perfect,” Haren said. “And I wasn’t perfect.”
Kershaw needed nothing more. He can make any lineup appear feeble with his mid-90s fastballs and preposterous curveballs. Heaters seem to suddenly appear in the catcher’s mitt, and curveballs disappear.
Johnson had used a lineup that could rightly be filed under, Just So Crazy It Might Work. Steve Lombardozzi, Moore and Perez — two infielders by trade and a 22-year-old who had never started a major league game — started in the outfield. Espinosa, batting .181 coming into the game, hit leadoff. Desmond, normally the No. 6 hitter, moved to the cleanup spot.
“Against a pitcher of this caliber, a lot of times I throw guys in off the bench,” Johnson said.
It did not work. The Nationals managed five hits all game, all singles, three of them from third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Espinosa’s struggles were the most pronounced. In his first three at-bats, he struck out three times while seeing 11 pitches.
“The guy has a 1.40 ERA and he strikes out 10 every game he pitches,” Espinosa said. “He didn’t make many mistakes. He didn’t make any mistakes to me over the middle. Everything was corner to corner. It happens. There’s nights like that when he’s throwing better pitches than you can handle. He just threw a good game.”
The Nationals’ impotence Tuesday night underscored one of their lineup’s issues this season and hinted at the potential troubles they would face should Harper miss more than a handful of games in the aftermath of his collision with the outfield fence. The Nationals have played consistently with a key starter missing — just as Zimmerman came off the disabled list, Werth went on it. And now, as Werth prepares to return Saturday, Harper faces the prospect of playing through bruises and bumps all over his body.
Last season, the Nationals thrived because their reserves ably filled in. This year, they are treading water, in part, because their bench hasn’t delivered. In the most pivotal moment of Tuesday night, the one time the Nationals made Kershaw vulnerable, one of those bench players stumbled.
The Nationals forced Kershaw to throw 29 pitches in the first inning, but the work only led to frustration. Two-out singles from Zimmerman and Desmond followed by a walk from LaRoche loaded the bases. Kershaw then dispatched Moore with a four-pitch strikeout, blowing fastballs by him and then tricking him with a diabolical curveball. Moore this year is 0 for 4 with three strikeouts with the bases loaded, and overall he’s hitting .145.
“With two outs, against anybody in the big leagues, it’s tough to get that hit,” LaRoche said.
Against Kershaw, maybe the best in the game, that hit never came.