PHOENIX — The Washington Nationals’ offense does not support any of its starting pitchers particularly well, but it seems to possess a special brand of contempt — or just highly unfortunate timing — for Livan Hernandez. He has pitched like his typically reliable self this season. Many nights, his hitting teammates have made that irrelevant.
Saturday night, before 26,199 at Chase Field, the Nationals lost, 2-0, to the Arizona Diamondbacks. To most pitchers, that would feel like buzzard’s luck. To Hernandez, it may feel like another day at the office — the Nationals have not scored a run in five of his 13 starts. In three of those shutouts, Hernandez has allowed two earned runs. He is tied for the National League lead with seven losses despite a 3.75 ERA, which hardly seems fair.
“Livo is such a pro,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “He’s seen it all and he’s been through this type of stuff before. But to me it’s just more about that we’re not winning ballgames when we’ve pitched so well. We all feel just terrible about the way we’ve squandered chances to win ballgames when we’ve pitched this well.”
The pitcher primarily responsible for the Nationals’ second straight blanking — and ninth of the season — was West Springfield native and Virginia Tech alum Joe Saunders. He entered 2-5 with a 4.77 ERA, and the Nationals loaded the bases in the first inning. They couldn’t score, and then Saunders allowed two more base runners the rest of his seven dominant innings.
In total, Saunders yielded two hits and two walks in seven innings, hitting a batter and striking out five. He retired the final 14 Nationals he faced and needed 93 pitches — 70 for the final 18 outs. “He just kept us off balance,” center fielder Rick Ankiel said.
Once Saunders left, the Nationals mounted an attempt at a rally, against reliever David Hernandez. Laynce Nix pinch-hit for Ian Desmond, who was five for his last 34, and smoked a two-out single to right field. Jayson Werth walked, leaving the inning to Michael Morse. Hernandez blew a 96-mph fastball by him for strike three, his fifth strikeout in his last eight at-bats.
Morse’s struggles encapsulated the most formidable obstacle the Nationals have faced: the absence of Ryan Zimmerman. Despite Morse’s May surge, the Diamondbacks pitched around Werth, walking him twice and hitting him once with a pitch that would have been ball four. After all three, Morse struck out. If Zimmerman, who will play in his first minor league rehab assignment Sunday, had been in the lineup behind Werth, he surely would have seen a pitch to hit.
“When you’re missing your best player, that can kind of hurt you a little bit,” said Jerry Hairston, Zimmerman’s replacement at third base. “Zim, what he does, he definitely takes the pressure off other hitters. Having that big guy in the lineup really makes a difference.
“I remember 2009, the Yankees started off really slow. Alex Rodriguez wasn’t in the lineup the first two months. And then when he was in the lineup, everybody started hitting. You’d be surprised — having that one guy can make that difference.”
Saturday, the Nationals did not manage many scoring opportunities, but they squandered them whenever they materialized. The Nationals went 0 for 6 with runners scoring position and left eight men on base. Hairston, the only batter with a hit off Saunders, led off the third with a double, but he was stranded at third.
Before Friday, the Nationals scored 26 runs in five games, a stretch that now looks more like a spasm of competence than a sign of things to come, at least until Zimmerman’s merciful return. The Nationals have seven hits in the past two games, and they were shut out in consecutive games for the second time in less than three weeks.
Their latest zero came at the expense, again, of Hernandez. For the fourth time in six starts, the Nationals did not score in a game he started. Hernandez surely pitched well enough to win. In seven innings, he allowed two runs on four hits and four walks, striking out three.
“I’m not frustrated,” Hernandez said. “I go outside and do my job. The day I got to pitch, I can’t think about nothing else. I can’t help it. I just go outside and pitch and give us a chance to win the game. It’s not something I can control. I can only try to pitch well, that’s all.”
Hernandez’s biggest misstep came in the first, when he walked Kelly Johnson, the second batter of the game, and with two outs threw a lifeless slider to Stephen Drew, who crushed it high off the center field fence, scoring Johnson and putting the Nationals in a 1-0 hole.
In the ninth, Ankiel doubled with two outs. But Roger Bernadina, pinch-hitting, ended the game with a popup against J.J. Putz. The break never came for Hernandez.
“He’s out there pitching his butt off,” Ankiel said. “It’s unfortunate we couldn’t come through and support him. But it’s baseball. We’ll come out and get them tomorrow.”