Matt Williams leaves the mound after Tyler Moore takes over in the ninth. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

brushback_harperFollowing Wednesday’s wretched 11-4 loss to the Diamondbacks, the Nationals clubhouse was quiet as usual following a defeat. No one yelled. Teammates didn’t huddle in corners to talk. Manager Matt Williams didn’t address the team. He planned to do that on Thursday, to remind them that they have “a limited numbers of games and we have to play well if we want to go where we want to go.”

That the Nationals’ fifth loss in six games dropped them to two games behind the Mets in the National League East was an unfortunate footnote. The Nationals’ sloppy play was more concerning than the defeat itself. Gio Gonzalez needed 95 pitches to get through five innings. The Nationals scored two runs on sacrifice flies with the bases loaded and no outs. Three relievers — Aaron Barrett, Tanner Roark and Felipe Rivero — gave up three runs each. There was a bases-load walk, a bases-loaded balk and a two-run error. Tyler Moore had to pitch.

[A (gulp) look at the NL East standings]

“Very disappointing,” Gonzalez said of the loss.

The most obvious issue that stands out is the Nationals’ offense. The Nationals’ lineup is nearly whole again save for the absence of Denard Span. But still, the Nationals lineups of backups were scoring more runs than this. Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon each missed significant time with injuries, so it will take them time to get back into the groove. Werth will take the longest, while Zimmerman has looked better and Rendon appears the best.

The Nationals can and should do better. Since the all-star break, the Nationals are averaging 3.4 runs per game and a second-to-last .218 average. Sure, they faced some of the best starters in the league for two weeks. But still, it is was as if the aura of those top pitchers played into the opponents’ advantage. And if the Nationals want to make a deep October run, they will need to beat the best pitchers in the league.

The Nationals should be feasting on pitchers like Rubby De La Rosa, who entered with a 4.59 ERA. They scored four runs off him in their previous meeting this season. In the first inning, De La Rosa’s command was iffy and the Nationals loaded the bases with a double and back-to-back walks. The Nationals’ No. 4 and 5 hitters came up, but Zimmerman and Werth could only lift sacrifice flies to right field instead of bigger hits.

Sure, the Nationals hit the ball hard other times and had little to show for it, but there was still unevenness about the offense. The Nationals went seven innings in between scoring runs on Tuesday and eight innings on Wednesday. The Nationals solved reliever David Hernandez one night but couldn’t the next, missing his offspeed pitches. Reliever Oliver Perez struck out the heart of the Nationals order in the eighth; Zimmerman and Werth both looking.

“We’ve got a better team than we’re showing right now,” catcher Jose Lobaton said.

The Nationals didn’t add any outside offense help at the trade deadline, hoping that the return of injured players would be enough of a boost for the team. It certainly can and will, but it will take time. So perhaps on occassion cycling in the previous regulars who helped the team get this far — Danny Espinosa or Clint Robinson — can help, too. Or perhaps, adjusting the lineup to jump-start some offense. A radical idea would be to put Werth, who has proven adept at long at-bats but notched few hits, high in the order, perhaps at leadoff, and moving a consistent hitter such as Yunel Escobar lower to help drive in runs.

In addition to the offense, there have been pitching inconsistencies and curious decisions. Gonzalez may have allowed only two runs but he wasn’t efficient enough to save the Nationals bullpen from more work. Williams let Gonzalez bat for himself in the bottom of the fifth with a pitch count of 93. But after he gave up a leadoff single to Yasmany Tomas in the top of the sixth, Williams instantly hooked Gonzalez.

Gonzalez wasn’t happy as Williams came out to get the ball nor as he walked to the dugout shaking his head. And his face was blank as he watched from the dugout as Barrett threw away the lead with a hit and two-run throwing error. But that’s a quick and usual hook by Williams. Clearly, he let Gonzalez bat to get another full and final inning out of him. That’s the best-case scenario. But was the worst-case scenario and backup plan letting him face only one batter?

“As a starting pitcher you want to continue as long and help out as much as possible and give your bullpen rest,” said Gonzalez, visibly bothered by the game afterwards. “It just sucks. I’ve got to do better than five innings.”

And because of the quick hook for Gonzalez, Barrett had little time to warm up.

“It was just one of those nights,” Barrett said. “I did the best that I could for the one batter that I was able to get loose in the sixth inning. It is what it is but you’ve got to find a way to get the job done.”

Quietly in the clubhouse, some of the moves have been met with puzzlement. Despite carrying a seven-man bullpen, the Nationals ended up using Moore to pitch in the ninth when Felipe Rivero struggled to get the final three outs and his pitch count hit 30. But how did the Nationals get to that point? Relievers struggled and because Williams wanted to avoid using two relievers, Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen, after each pitched back-to-back days, including mop-up duty on Monday after neither pitched over the weekend in New York. Not ideal.

Things can improve for the Nationals. The majority of the remaining games are at home and against losing teams. And for some reason, the Nationals have proven to be a second-half team over the past four seasons. They went 38-18 in August and September last season. They also went 34-20 over the final two months in 2013. In 2012, they did better, going a torrid 37-23 to close out August and September.

The issue comparing last year with this year is that the Nationals have a better team with which to contend. The Braves wilted in the ’14 second half. The Nationals may not be far off at this point to where they were last season, but the Mets have better pitching and are playing well. The Nationals will need another very hot stretch to reach 90 wins, often the minimum to even reach the playoffs. Winning the division should be the utmost goal: the second-place team in the NL East may have a tough time getting into the postseason given the strength of the NL Central teams jockeying for the wild-card spots.

“We’ve got to keep smiling and keep laughing and try to have to some fun,” right fielder Bryce Harper said. “We’ve got a long ways to go. … At the beginning of the season, if you told me we’d be two games back with 55 games to go, I’d take it any day of the week. I don’t think you can have a bad mentality or bad mind coming into the clubhouse every single day.

“We’re still going. We’re still doing what we’re doing. We’ve just got to get to swinging it and get comfortable and go about it the right way every single day and laugh and really try to enjoy the game. That’s all that matters. Try to laugh, try to smile and there’s bigger things than baseball in life. So come in and worry about what you can do to help your team win that day.”

IN THE POST

The Nationals play sloppy baseball in an 11-4 loss to the Diamondbacks

IN THE JOURNAL

Ian Desmond gets a day off, Danny Espinosa starts at shortstop

Odds and ends from an afternoon at Nationals Park

Why the Nationals are swinging often at 3-0 pitches

Jayson Werth isn’t going to cut his hair any time soon

Max Scherzer gets 1,500th strikeout

‘Janssen to Storen to Pap’ has a nice late-inning ring to it

NATIONALS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 7, Pawtucket 4: Taylor Jordan allowed one run over seven innings while Sammy Solis earned a two-inning save. Emmanuel Burriss and Steven Lerud each drove in two runs.

Harrisburg 3, Akron 2: Austin Voth allowed two runs and struck out six over eight innings. Isaac Ballou drove in two runs.

Lynchburg 7, Potomac 6: Brian Rauh coughed up six runs on 11 hits over six innings. Craig Manuel and Reggie Corona each drove in two runs.

Charleston 7, Hagerstown 4: Drew Van Orden gave up two runs, one earned, over five innings. Koda Glover blew the save after allowing three runs, two earned. Osvaldo Abreu went 2 for 4.

Auburn 8, West Virginia 5: Matthew Crownover coughed up two runs over 4 2/3 innings while Sam Johns blew the save after giving up two more. Ian Sagdal drove in three runs. Victor Robles went 2 for 5.