In the seventh inning, with runners at first and third base and trailing by two runs, Johnson sent pinch hitter Steve Lombardozzi, one of the team’s lesser-used hitters, but an effective one nonetheless, to the plate.
Cardinals reliever Joe Kelly was struggling, allowing back-to-back singles and throwing three straight balls to Lombardozzi. Once Kelly fought back to 3-2, Johnson called for a hit-and-run, an anxious attempt both to prevent a double play with catcher Jhonatan Solano at first and to potentially net a game-tying run with a hit.
Instead, Lombardozzi, who doesn’t strike out often, swung and missed on an outside 94-mph fastball — and it was an ideal pitch to throw out Solano at second base to end the inning.
“All the little things go against you,” Johnson said.
The giddy joy of last season and a winter of sky-high World Series aspirations seemed so distant. Stephen Strasburg, who produced seven effective innings Wednesday after a rough beginning, was betrayed by a lineup struggling. The Nationals fell to 10-11, the first time they have been under .500 since the final day of the 2011 season.
“We need to jumble it up and we need to switch the mojo a little bit,” outfielder Jayson Werth said. “I think somebody was talking about Phil Jackson the other day. We need to call him up, have him come in here and burn some sage or something. We’re not very feng shui right now.”
The Nationals continue to be bothered by the losses but again preached patience. Their results are magnified, some players believe, because they are dealing with expectations for the first time and because it’s only April. While some players may not admit it, Johnson sees a team playing aggressively to a fault because they want to succeed.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “We’re just not doing the things we’re capable of doing. Guys are trying to do too much. [Ian Desmond] looked like he was trying to hit the ball to the light tower. Little things where guys are trying to create something that’s not there yet.”
Said Werth: “They always say you’re better lucky than good and we’re neither right now. We’ll be all right. Just things aren’t going our way and we’re not playing real good on top of it. We need to, might need to switch it up a little bit.”
Johnson said he would start Lombardozzi, who is hitting .345 in 29 at-bats, near the top of the order on Thursday as part of his effort to jump-start the lineup. Lombardozzi could play third base, which has been manned by rookie Anthony Rendon since he was called up Sunday. Johnson also suggested possibly moving Werth from the second spot to the heart of the order.