LOS ANGELES — Early Sunday afternoon, the Washington Nationals had created for themselves a perfect start. They sent four batters to the plate, scored a run and loaded the bases with no outs. They knew a cross-country flight loomed at night, and a pleasant trip already seemed certain. That, of course, was before they made 27 outs without a hit.
Rather than salvaging their first trip of the second half, the Nationals instead found a new, mind-numbing way to lose during a 3-1 defeat by the Los Angeles Dodgers. After their first four hitters reached base, the Nationals produced one base runner the rest of the game, a walk by Jayson Werth in the fourth inning. Remove those first four hitters, then, and the Dodgers, led by starter Chad Billingsley’s seven innings, would have no-hit the Nationals.
The Nationals lost all three series and finished 3-6 on their trip despite ending with six games against the Houston Astros and Dodgers, two of the eight major league teams with at least 55 losses. The dismal finish Sunday dropped them to three games below .500, their worst record since June 16. The Nationals are 9-14 since Manager Davey Johnson took over June 27, better than only four major league teams over that span.
“We’re not playing up to our standards, or the standards of the owner, or the GM, the manager or anybody else,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “We’re letting a lot of people down right now. We’ve got to be better than this.
“Me personally, I think that the energy is down. We’re not playing the same brand of baseball that we were when we came out of the gates from the beginning. I feel like we’re a little flat. We’ve got to get some kind of spark.”
After he watched Desmond’s defensive misplay in the third inning, Johnson lifted both his arms and slammed the railing of the visitor’s dugout at Dodger Stadium. He unleashed his frustrations after a botched double play that cost the Nationals a run, but he could have chosen any number of moments to vent.
Starter Jason Marquis walked four in six innings, allowing three runs and five hits. The Dodgers turned the base paths into a track meet against backup catcher Jesus Flores, who had little help from his teammates keeping runners close and allowed three stolen bases in three attempts. Their defense made no errors, but it created a few extra base runners. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and Marquis miscommunicated fielding a bunt and let the runner reach base. Desmond, after a tough flip from second baseman Danny Espinosa, made a wide throw that prevented a double play, allowed a run and led to Johnson’s abuse of the railing.
The story, though, was their bizarrely impotent offensive performance. The Nationals made Billingsley throw 38 pitches in the first inning and their first four hitters reached base. But they still scored only one run, which is hard to do.
“We should have crushed them in that first inning,” Johnson said.
After Roger Bernadina walked and Espinosa was hit by a pitch, Zimmerman and Michael Morse ripped consecutive singles. The Nationals had a 1-0 lead and the bases loaded with no outs, just about an ideal situation.
Up came Werth, who had shown signs of busting his slump, with four extra-base hits in his past three games, including a two-run double on Saturday night. He worked an eight-pitch at-bat, but swung through a 95-mph fastball for strike three. Billingsley then struck out Rick Ankiel and Flores swinging, as well. The Nationals had turned their rally into a wasted chance.
“If you get a pitcher like that on the ropes, you’ve got to take advantage of it,” Zimmerman said. “He kind of wiggled out of that first inning. Whenever a pitcher does that, they gain confidence.”
After the first inning, it seemed unthinkable that Billingsley would hang around long to qualify for a win, let alone dominate for seven innings. But there he was in the top of the seventh, striking out Ankiel for the third time, his 10th and final strikeout of the day. Two batters later, Desmond grounded Billingsley’s 115th pitch to third base for the third out.
Relievers Kenley Jansen and Javy Guerra cleaned up in the eighth and ninth, combining for three more strikeouts. The final one came when Guerra blew two 95-mph fastballs past Werth, giving the Nationals 13 on the day.
The Dodgers scored twice in the bottom of the first inning on a two-run single that played out like a blooper reel. With Matt Kemp on first and Andre Ethier on third, Aaron Miles lined a single into right-center field. Center fielder Ankiel cut the ball off in the gap and fired it into the infield. As Espinosa received the ball on a short hop, Kemp rounded third and sprinted home, trying to score from first on a single.
Espinosa fired to the plate, a bit off-balance after he scooped Ankiel’s throw and turned. The ball skipped to Flores in time, but he couldn’t corral the throw as Kemp slid in safely behind him. For good measure, Flores made a weak throw to second base, which Miles took on the throw home.
The Nationals are now heading to Washington for a nine-game homestand, all against National League East opponents. The trade deadline will come next Sunday, and so the Nationals may look rather different by the end of it.
It was hard to squeeze any other good news out of Sunday afternoon. After the Braves shellacked them in Atlanta to open the trip, the Nationals actually outscored their opponents, 40-35, over the last eight games of the trip. But they lost five, all by one or two runs.
“It could have been a great road trip, and it turns out to be a subpar road trip,” Johnson said. “No question about it, I had high hopes coming out. I know a lot of the guys did. We’re just not getting it done. I know the effort is there. We just didn’t swing the bats when we needed to.”