“I wish we had a solid answer for that,” LaRoche said, “because we would have done it two months ago.”
In a 2-0 loss to the Indians on Sunday that dropped them yet again to .500, the Nationals demonstrated perhaps their worst display of situational hitting all season. Eight times they had runners on base with no outs and couldn’t score. Three of those times there was a runner on third base with no outs and they remained there. Stephen Strasburg returned to the mound after missing two weeks and delivered a fine performance, allowing only one run over five innings, but was betrayed yet again by an ineffective offense.
Even the continued torrid hitting streak of rookie Anthony Rendon, who smacked three hits, wasn’t enough to rescue this sleepy offense, which continues to sorely miss injured Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos. The Nationals were shut out for the eighth time this season.
“When we had runners on third with less than two outs, we just didn’t score,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “That’s what’s frustrating. We’ve got to be able to do that. We’ve got to be able to do that if we want to do anything this year.”
Johnson and hitting coach Rick Eckstein have urged more aggressiveness from Nationals hitters, as not to let pitchers dictate the at-bats. But earlier this week, Johnson sounded resigned to the fact that hitters in this lineup would be passive and take pitches. He voiced repeated confidence in his hitters and that they will pull out of this. Asked what else he can try to improve this offense after Sunday’s loss, Johnson again sounded frustrated.
“Just bow our necks and get better,” he said. “That’s all. That’s all I can say.”
Slowly, the Nationals have started getting healthy again, in particular the starting rotation. Starter Ross Detwiler returned this week after missing a month. Strasburg was back on Sunday after being out since May 31 when he exited after two innings with a mild lat strain. He returned Sunday after missing 12 games but only one start.
Other than facing teammates in a simulated game this week, Strasburg hadn’t faced live hitters in two weeks and, at times, it showed on Sunday. He walked two of the first four batters he faced in the first inning. He walked leadoff batter Michael Bourn on five pitches, though he was erased on a double play. Another walk to Jason Kipnis was moot after a flyout to end the inning.
“It was good to be out there, number one,” he said. “It’s kinda been two weeks so I just wanted to go out there and pound the strike zone as much as I could. A little hit and miss, kinda to be expected. Can’t really worry about it too much. I think I threw a lot of good pitches in there and kept the team in the ballgame.”
Strasburg settled into a groove and didn’t allow another base runner until he walked Kipnis again in the fourth inning. With Carlos Santana at the plate, Kipnis took off for second base. Catcher Jhonatan Solano popped up and fired a low throw. The ball skipped past Desmond at second and into center field, and Kipnis moved to third. With a 2-1 count, Santana fought off two Strasburg pitches before he dug out a low fastball and drove it into center field for an RBI single.
Strasburg tossed 82 pitches, limited by Johnson in his first game back, and allowed only one run on one hit over five innings but walked four. It was a fine performance, enough to keep the Nationals within one run. But for nine innings on a day of miserable hitting, that Santana single was all the offense the Indians needed. A sacrifice fly by Kipnis against Craig Stammen in the eighth tacked on an insurance run.
The Nationals’ offensive woes could all be detailed here but it might hurt to read. There was the time in the fourth inning — with Rendon on third because of an error that also allowed Ryan Zimmerman to reach first with no outs — that LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Desmond all struck out against starter Corey Kluber.
There was also an opportunity in the sixth inning — with Denard Span on third and Rendon on first following a pair of no-out singles — that ended with Zimmerman striking out and LaRoche grounding into a double play.
And then there was the seventh inning, when Werth doubled off Kluber to start off the frame, Desmond took a pitch off his hip to reach base and pinch-hitter Lombardozzi reached on a popped-up bunt single that Kluber just missed making a play on.
Then came the bitter ending, as Solano lined a ball at first baseman Mark Reynolds, who doubled off Lombardozzi. Lombardozzi had strayed too much behind Reynolds and he made the easy play to get two outs.
“It’s unacceptable,” Lombardozzi said. “You learn that when you’re growing up as a kid. You can’t get doubled off right there.”
Roger Bernadina then rolled over the second pitch he saw to the shortstop to end the inning. Not even with the bases loaded and no outs could the Nationals plate a run. They retreated to the silent clubhouse with yet another reminder that they are a .500 team in mid-June. They are averaging just 3.49 runners per game (second worst in the majors) and are hitting .239 with runners in scoring position (third worst).
“We’re obviously not playing as good as we could or not where everybody would like to be, but I don’t mind our position,” Werth said. “I don’t mind where we’re at. It may be a good thing. We’ll have to fight and kick and claw the rest of the way. That’s okay.
“That’s how young teams learn how to win and we’re a young team. If we end up at the end of the season and I think we’re going to end up probably for the best. We obviously need to pick it up and start winning some ballgames. We’ve been banged up, not that that’s any excuse but that’s the reality.”