ATLANTA — If you had to pick one representative game from this Washington Nationals season, Wednesday night would not be a bad choice. John Lannan, their starter, pitched well enough to win. Michael Morse, their one consistent force all year, destroyed one ball, a line-drive home run that left a vapor trail as it rocketed over the right-center field fence. And the rest of the Nationals’ offense did almost nothing.
The Nationals’ 3-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves before 20,687 at Turner Field made their nine-run, four-homer outburst a night earlier feel like an aberration. They managed three hits against Derek Lowe and the Braves’ unparalleled bullpen, their offense again costing them when they otherwise could have had a chance. The Nationals have surely made progress this season, but at times their offense has done plenty to obscure it.
Lowe may have deserved as much credit Wednesday as the Nationals’ hitters deserved scorn. He threw zigzagging sinkers and cutters all night at the low-and-outside corner, where home plate umpire Eric Cooper consistently called strikes. “It looked borderline to me all night,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I’m not saying they weren’t strikes.”
“He didn’t really give anybody much to hit today at all,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said of Lowe. “That pitch down, especially with the sinkerball like that, it’s going to be a long night. Everything you’re trying to do on him is see the ball up. When he gets that pitch, it makes it very tough.”
Washington is 1-7 in its last eight games, and it has scored four or fewer runs in all seven of those defeats. Tuesday night, Johnson, a self-described offensive manager, could not stop smiling. He finally had a game that suited him, and he could sense the Nationals’ offense starting to come together. Better times were coming.
But with less than one month remaining this season, judging by the black-and-white facts, the Nationals’ offense has established itself as one of the least productive in the majors. The return to health of Ryan Zimmerman has helped, as has the recent surge from Ian Desmond, who had the only other two hits besides Morse’s homer Wednesday night.
“I thought we got some pitches to hit,” Johnson said. “Some days, it’s like that.”
The victim Wednesday night was Lannan, who allowed two or fewer earned runs and lost for the second consecutive start and for the fifth time this season. He allowed the Braves three runs, two earned, in seven innings on seven hits and a walk, striking out six. He made his biggest missteps when he allowed the 450th home run of Chipper Jones’s career in the second inning and the first of Lowe’s career in the third.
“I felt good all night,” Lannan said. “They just got to me in the second and third.”
The Nationals still could have given Lannan his ninth win — and broken his tie for the team lead with Jordan Zimmermann, Livan Hernandez and the traded-a-month-ago Jason Marquis. But their offense foundered, producing mostly strikeouts and groundballs.
Lowe makes his living peppering the strike zone with darting pitches — including “that front-door slider-cutter thing,” Zimmerman said — and he took the act to the extreme Wednesday. During one stretch between the third and sixth innings, Lowe retired 11 consecutive Nationals, 10 of them on either strikeouts or groundouts. Of the Nationals’ 27 outs, 21 came on strikeouts and groundouts.
“Their pitchers get paid, too,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not easy to hit in this league.”
On one of the rare occasions a National reached base Wednesday night, the opportunity evaporated. Desmond, who has a .343 on-base percentage since the all-star break, led off the game with a single. Taking his lead off first, he “saw something” in Lowe’s delivery, Johnson said, and bolted for second before Lowe started his motion. Lowe picked him off, and Desmond was out in a rundown.
“That’s part of being a base runner and being a base stealer,” Desmond said. “You get picked off sometimes. You got to push the limit sometimes. First inning, to get picked off, I don’t think it changed the game by any means. It’s part of stealing bases.”
The Nationals are not the kind of hitting team that can withstand wasted runners. They ranked 25th in the majors with 3.86 runs per game entering Wednesday. According to the Web site FanGraphs.com, they hit line drives 17.7 percent of the time they put the ball in the play, 29th in the majors. They hit the ball on the ground 46.2 percent of the time, 26th in the majors.
And that’s when they put the ball in play. They have struck out in 21.4 percent of their plate appearances, second-most in the majors behind only the San Diego Padres. Johnson said before Wednesday’s loss that he thinks the Nationals strike out looking too often, and the numbers back him up — 28 percent of the Nationals’ strikeouts had come by looking at third strike, the fifth-highest rate in the league.
The Nationals had made minor progress in August, highlighted by Tuesday. They hit 33 home runs in August, fourth most in the National League. But there are too many nights like Wednesday for them to patch together a strong offense.