NEW YORK — Adam LaRoche sat at his locker Wednesday night and pulled on a pair of cowboy boots, the disappointment and frustration from earlier still sticking with him. He had come up four times and made four outs, twice not putting the ball in play. Nights like this when the Washington Nationals win, he can handle. When they don’t, he feels responsible.
LaRoche, of course, is not solely liable for the Nationals’ sluggish offensive start to the season, which continued Wednesday with a 3-0 loss to the New York Mets at Citi Field, their sixth shutout loss this season and third in nine games. It takes a team effort to do that, and the Nationals, after left-hander Jon Niese allowed them zero runs in seven innings, will wake up Thursday with the lowest batting average (.225) and smallest on-base percentage (.298) in the National League.
For most of the season, the Nationals have considered their offensive malaise and found comfort in the calendar. “It’s early,” has been a frequent refrain. At some point, the Nationals are going to have to answer a difficult question: At what point is it no longer early?
“To me, it’s never early,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “Everybody has been doing everything they can to get it going from day one. And we continue to do it. Certainly, we feel like we’re going to get it going. Each game is significant.”
While LaRoche may not be entirely accountable, he is most representative of the Nationals’ slump. After he went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, twice stranding a runner on third base, LaRoche is batting .177, worst in the National League. He plays first base and bats fifth, and the dearth of offense stings him.
“For whatever reason, I feel like if I get going, I think other guys fall in and start hitting, too,” LaRoche said. “That’s as hard as anything, sitting back and watching us lose some of these games when we’re not scoring a lot of runs and knowing I could have done something about it. You win a game and go 0 for 4, you don’t even think twice about it. Games like tonight, when you don’t score runs, is when it eats you.”
If weak hitting has been a primary tenet of the Nationals’ first 42 games, so has outstanding starting pitching. Tom Gorzelanny became the latest Natonals pitcher to see his effort wasted, allowing three runs on eight hits, three unintentional walks and seven strikeouts in 52 / 3 innings.
Jose Reyes led off the game with a single and eventually scored on a sacrifice fly, and Gorzelanny held the deficit at 1-0 until the sixth inning. With two outs, Riggleman ordered Gorzelanny to intentionally walk Reyes, bringing to the plate rookie third baseman Justin Turner with men on first and second.
Riggleman stuck with Gorzelanny, who said later he felt “fine. I felt like I was ready to get out of the inning and get that guy out.”
Said Riggleman: “I hate to not give our starter a chance to hunt out there. He’s really battling, and I really didn’t want to end his night with nothing but a loss or a no-decision.”
On the 116th pitch Gorzelanny threw, Turner scalded a double over Bernadina’s head, scoring both runners. “Hung a slider down the middle,” Gorzelanny said. “If you can’t hit that, you don’t deserve to be here.”
The Nationals faced a 3-0 hole, not an impossible margin to overcome but, for them, an unlikely one. They had scored at least four runs in seven of their past nine games, but they spent Wednesday squandering any chance they created.
In the first inning, singles by Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos gave the Nationals runners on first and third with no outs, but LaRoche flied to right. Michael Morse led off the second with a double to the left-center gap, but Jerry Hairston could not drive him in after Danny Espinosa moved him to third with a sac bunt.
The best opportunity came in the seventh, Niese’s final inning. Espinosa started a two-rally with a double to right, Hairston drew a walk and pinch hitter Brian Bixler, batting with a monsoon happening around him, reached on a chopper to third base.
The inning fell to Roger Bernadina. He took three balls as Niese struggled to find a grip on the ball. The rain suddenly stopped, and Niese suddenly found the strike zone — two strikes looking, and two fouls. Bernadina grounded the eighth pitch of the at-bat to first base, and the rally had ended.
Steady rain created unusual conditions. The announced attendance was 24,527, but perhaps one-eighth of that showed up. The infield soaked until puddles formed. Members of the grounds crew spent several minutes between late innings pouring dirt on the base paths. In the eighth, Werth stood on deck with a towel tucked in his back pocket, like a center in football.
“I was wondering what the hell we were doing out there,” Niese said.
The Nationals have treaded water without Ryan Zimmerman, and now they have an ideal opportunity for more. Dating back to Monday’s win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Nationals will play 12 straight games against teams with losing records.
No matter who they play, the Nationals will have to start scoring runs like they believe they are capable of scoring them, and before it gets too late.
“It’s still really early,” Hairston said. “We can turn things around. I’ve seen it done. Hopefully, we’ll do that.”