Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond went hitless in four at-bats Thursday night, but that’s not exactly breaking news considering the Phillies had ace Cliff Lee on the mound. Lee was so good that he needed just 99 pitches to log the sixth shutout of his career, and Desmond had plenty of company when it came to futility at the plate.

What’s becoming more of a pressing issue, though, is Desmond’s painfully slow start in the leadoff spot. After his performance in Thursday’s 4-0 loss, Desmond’s batting average dipped to .180, and he has reached base only once this season at Nationals Park.

“I’ll be honest with you. I wish I knew,” Desmond said when asked why he hasn’t been able to produce consistently from the leadoff position. “I’m up there having the same at-bats as I always do. I’m not just putting the barrel on the ball right now.”

The top of the order overall didn’t provide any backup for Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann, who allowed one earned run in seven innings in his best start since coming back from Tommy John surgery. Hitters Nos. 1-4 went a combined 0 for 15 with seven strikeouts.

But Desmond was shouldering much of the blame after the Nationals were unable win the rubber match of their three-game series with their NL East rivals.

“We’ve got to get something going offensively, and it doesn’t help that the leadoff guy hasn’t gotten on base at home yet,” Desmond said, overlooking his one walk in Wednesday’s 3-2 loss to the Phillies. “It’s a fact. I’ve got to get on base if the team wants to score runs, and if we want to see our pitching staff pitch well, we’ve got to give them a lead. It’s a simple as that.”

The Nationals installed Desmond as the leadoff hitter when they parted ways with Nyjer Morgan, who had occupied that slot last season as the starting center fielder. Morgan finished with a .253 batting average and a .319 OBP, the lowest of his career and hardly leadoff-worthy.

Washington, meantime, was encouraged by Desmond’s rookie season in 2010, when he batted .269 and had 17 steals. But Desmond finished the season in a huge slump, collecting just three hits in his final 32 at-bats, and the light hitting has carried over to the beginning of this season.

The oddity in all of this is that Desmond’s numbers are excellent away from Nationals Park. During the club’s most recent road trip, Desmond went 9 for 25, including matching a career-high with four hits on April 6 in a 7-4 loss at Florida.

“Earlier I was trying to make a couple little adjustments, and now I’m kind of gravitating back to what I was doing at the end of last year,” Desmond said. “That’s just the way baseball is. I’m kind of glad I’m hitting it now. Hopefully I won’t have that long stretch where I’m doing well and fall off toward the end of the year. Hopefully I can stay hot for the rest of the year, put up some decent numbers and help the team out.”