ATLANTA — On the first day of the last month of the season, Manager Davey Johnson was asked what he wants from the Washington Nationals over the rest of the year. He did not talk about developing players, staying healthy or playing for pride. He chose instead to offer a spare directive. “Swing the bat better,” Johnson said.
The Nationals have no more glaring issue than their impotent offense, and it surfaced again Thursday night in a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves before 18,794 at Turner Field; the loss concluded a 1-5 road trip.
The Nationals (63-72) fell to nine games under .500, matching the lowest point of the year, a mark last reached June 9.
“We’re just not hitting well enough to win,” Johnson said. “I think the pitching has been fine. I think we’ve shown flashes where everybody has been swinging the bat good. It’s been a struggle. Offensively, the guys in the game, the bench, we just haven’t got it done. I think the talent is there. It just hasn’t produced. That’s the bottom line.”
If identifying a crucial flaw can be helpful for the future, it is excruciating in the present. “That probably makes it worse,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “You feel like you should be winning the games we’re playing well enough to win. But we’re not. It’s hard to swallow. We’ve got the guys to win. It’s just not happening.”
Thursday, even their most promising moment underscored their struggle. They threatened in the eighth inning against Braves left-hander Jonny Venters, the best reliever in baseball.
But a bases-loaded rally fizzled with just one run when the Nationals needed at least three.
Tim Hudson won for the 12th time against the Nationals, more than any opposing starter since baseball returned to Washington, by yielding one run on five hits in six innings. Nationals starter Chien-Ming Wang rarely fooled the Braves in his second start against them this year. He gave up four earned runs in 52 / 3 innings on seven hits.
Wang gave up two home runs, one by Brian McCann and the other by Chipper Jones. Wang said he threw his sinker “too up,” a product of the way he held his hand “too flat” as he released the ball. Wang failed to strike out a hitter for the third time in seven starts. His style generates few strikeouts even at its best, but the lack of misses provides at least a measure of alarm.
When their chances at a victory seemed most grim, the Nationals nearly stunned the Braves. Venters came on in the eighth, normally a good sign for someone to warm up the team bus. The Nationals, though, mounted a rally with an infield single by Jonny Gomes and one-out walks by Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman.
Gomes scored when Jones bobbled Michael Morse’s weak roller to third base. The Nationals had cut the deficit to 4-2, and Johnson, sensing a last gasp, sent catcher Jesus Flores to pinch-hit with the bases still loaded. Then Venters proved what has made him the league’s best. He struck out Flores and then struck out Danny Espinosa, too, by following 97-mph heat with a slider that nearly disappeared.
“If we knew, we’d do something about it,” Werth said. “But it’s the way of the world right now, unfortunately. It’s frustrating.”
The Nationals’ first run scored in the sixth when Werth hit the ball harder than he has all year. He detonated Hudson’s 0-2 slider deep to left field, and it landed at the back of the first sections of seats, his 17th, and longest, home run this year.
“I can’t think of one I hit that far in a while,” Werth said.
Against Hudson, the Nationals frittered away the precious chances they created. They had runners on the corners with one out in the third. Wilson Ramos grounded to third base to start a 5-4-3 double play, a common bugaboo in the catcher’s rookie season. Ramos has grounded into 18 double plays in 72 plate appearances with a runner on first and less than two outs, a 25-percent rate that is the highest in the major leagues.
In the fourth, a less likely candidate spoiled things. Ian Desmond scalded a one-out double off the center field fence and moved to third on a passed ball before Werth walked. Up came Zimmerman. He also grounded into a double play.
Before the game, Johnson said, flatly, “We strike out too much.” The Nationals made him look more prescient than he wanted to. The final five outs of their night, against Venters and Craig Kimbrel, were strikeouts. “We just didn’t get it done,” Johnson said. “It’s been kind of the same song all year long. We got to the point where we had a chance to do something. We just didn’t do it.”
Nationals note: Laynce Nix left the game in the bottom of the third inning with what he termed a right groin “tweak.” Nix expects to miss a couple games, but “I don’t think it’s that severe,” he said. In Class AAA Syracuse, outfielder Roger Bernadina left the game in the fifth inning, a possible sign the Nationals plan to call him up for Friday’s game against the New York Mets at Nationals Park.