After their offense dragged the Nationals to their third straight loss, with crucial strikeouts by Danny Espinosa, Rick Ankiel and, to end the game with men on second and third, Ryan Zimmerman, Johnson flatly demanded more of his hitters.
“I liked the matchups we had in situations we had men in scoring position,” Johnson said. “And we just didn’t swing the bats. We had pitches to hit and we swung through them. I don’t know. I don’t know if guys are feeling too much pressure because we’re having trouble generating runs but, boy, guys, the pitcher’s in a jam. Just relax and if he throws it over, hit it. But tonight was especially frustrating. No doubt about it.”
Following an electric series over the weekend against their rival at packed Nationals Park, the Nationals came here to face a nondescript opponent at an empty ballpark — 11,478 came Wednesday — under a gray sky spitting intermittent rain. A letdown could have been predicted, but not to the depths Washington reached Wednesday night.
The Pirates (14-16) lost starting pitcher Erik Bedard to back spasms with no outs in the second inning. The Nationals (18-12) responded with two runs, five hits and 11 strikeouts off five relievers in the final eight innings. In 30 games this year, the Nationals have produced five hits or less 11 times and 10 strikeouts or more nine times. Only the Pirates and San Diego Padres have scored fewer runs per game.
Wednesday, the Nationals’ offense rendered moot six solid innings from Ross Detwiler, who gave up three runs on seven hits. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein said Nationals hitters need to focus more on identifying their strengths and not chasing pitches out of their zones. Too often, he said, they have been submitting, letting pitchers control at-bats and swinging at pitches they’re likely to miss.
“If you’re looking in places where you know it’s really not your strength, and the ball goes into your strength zone and you’re really not keyed into that area, the tendency is to miss it,” Eckstein said.
There isn’t a lone culprit on an offense that has struck out 23 times over the past two games. But in the middle of the loss stood Espinosa, the second-year second baseman fighting to find his footing. He snapped an 0-for-10 slump in the seventh inning and scored Washington’s second run. But his National League-leading 39th strikeout provided the fulcrum for the loss.