“We’re not giving ourselves a chance to become the 2013 Nats,” Desmond said. “We’re playing as 2012. We got to give ourselves time to breathe.”
The Nationals’ mission to find an identity continued in vain at Citizens Bank Park. At the critical juncture of another loss, the ball sizzled toward a second baseman playing left field. Steve Lombardozzi charged the line drive, fielded it on a short hop and heaved the ball toward the infield. Phillies scurried around the bases, growing the deficit too large to overcome, at least for a lineup like Washington’s against a pitcher like Cliff Lee.
“I mean, it hurts,” Johnson said. “But that’s where we’re at.”
Maybe Lombardozzi could have caught Kevin Frandsen’s line drive, the keystone hit of the Nats’ fourth loss in five games. That question seemed beside the point. While they wait for Harper to return from a knee injury, the Nationals are reduced to playing an infielder in left field many nights and hoping against hope they will score runs.
“It’s just about the feeling, the atmosphere throughout the ballclub,” Desmond said. “When you had such a success last year, it’s so hard to let go of the things we did last year. This is a new team. We have probably a better team, a better squad roster-wise. We’re trying to force the things on ourselves that we did last year instead of letting us go out and play the game we know how to play.”
The Nationals (34-36) fell two games below .500, matching their season-worst, and tumbled into a virtual tie for second place with the Phillies. They missed a rare opportunity to gain extra ground on the first-place Atlanta Braves, who were swept in a doubleheader. (“I don’t worry about that,” Johnson said. “It’s a little too early for me to start watching the scoreboard.”) The Nationals ended the night seven games out of first, gaining ground but losing time.
“Maybe we’ve kind of lacked an identity as a team,” Werth said. “But you know, I think as you start winning games and you start playing and you go on a roll or you rally or whatever it is you do, you kind of create an identity. We just haven’t hit our stride as far as that goes.
“It’s not for lack of effort or for lack of caring. Guys in here work hard and want to win and play hard. It just hasn’t lined up for us yet. There’s a lot of season left. We just need to keep battling. If we can stay around or above .500 going into the break, the second half’s crazy. But we’ve got to stay close.”