Rafael Soriano stood just off the pitcher’s mound and stared at the right field wall, hands on his hips and a blank expression on his face. The decisive moment of the Washington Nationals’ 3-2 loss Friday night had confounded Soriano as much as the prelude to it had mystified the rest of Nationals Park: How had Andre Ethier hit that pitch over the fence? And how had the Nationals let it get to this point in the first place?
Soriano seemed not to notice Ethier as he entered his view, trotting from first base to second. In the ninth, Ethier had golfed Soriano’s 1-2 slider just over the right field wall, snapping a 2-2 tie. The Nationals entered Friday night with the hope of resetting their season after the all-star break. After the Nationals went in order in the bottom of the inning, the Los Angeles Dodgers had turned their fresh start into another sour night.
The Nationals squandered another sterling performance from Stephen Strasburg, who allowed two runs over seven sweltering innings. Their offense condensed the frustration of the season’s first half into one inning, loading the bases in the fourth only to come away with zilch.
“It sucks,” said outfielder Bryce Harper, who will bat leadoff Saturday as long as Adam LaRoche is recovered enough from the illness that kept him out of the lineup Friday night. “You try to get guys on and score some runs. That bases-loaded, no-outs is a huge situation. And we couldn’t capitalize.”
The Nationals’ stumble to start the second half coupled with the Atlanta Braves’ victory over the Chicago White Sox dropped the Nationals (48-48) seven games out of first in the NL East. They also fell a half-game behind the Philadelphia Phillies, tumbling into third place for the first time since June 8.
After they went 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position and grounded into three double plays, the Nationals handed Soriano a 2-2 game in the ninth. Ethier led off, and Soriano quickly moved ahead of him with two strikes and one ball. Soriano twirled a slider that fell out of the strike zone. Ethier skied it to right field, where the ball carries well this time of year. Jayson Werth drifted back to the wall and looked up as the ball landed in the front row.
“I don’t know how he hit that ball,” Soriano said. “When I make a mistake, it’s not easy for me. When I make a good pitch and the hitter hits the ball good like tonight, there’s nothing I can do.”
Soriano could have stayed away from Ethier, who like many left-handed sluggers is known for his ability to mash low and inside pitches. But Soriano said he started the at-bat with fastballs away, and the situation called for a pitch low and in, no matter the hitter.
Ethier’s shot spoiled another strong night from Strasburg, who rebounded from his two-inning debacle in Miami in the final start of his first half. He threw more first-pitch strikes as he fought withering heat and a surging Dodgers lineup. He struck out six and retired Yasiel Puig in all three of their encounters, including a seven-pitch strikeout on a 97-mph fastball. He walked one and gave up seven hits, six of them singles, as his ERA shrunk to 2.97.
The Dodgers inflicted their only significant damage with two outs in the third inning, after Adrian Gonzalez poked a single to center. Hanley Ramirez hacked at a 95-mph fastball across the outside corner — another fine pitch, really — and roped a two-run homer over the wall in right-center field.
“I thought it was a good pitch, but that’s a guy that’s hot right now,” Strasburg said. “He guessed right. Tip your cap.”
The homer put the Nationals down, 2-1, and they kept the deficit at one with the type of inning that had remotes flying at televisions all across the District.
The agony began innocently. Ryan Zimmerman led off the fourth with a single to center off Dodgers starter Ricky Nolasco. Harper followed with his second hit of the night, a single to right. Zimmerman tested Puig’s arm and made it to third with a nifty hook slide, and Harper took second on the throw. With first base open, Nolasco pitched Werth with caution, conceding the walk.
The Nationals had the bases full with no outs and seemingly the right man walking to the plate. In his career, Desmond had hit .405 with the bases loaded. Now, though, he tapped a 1-1 curveball to left side. Third baseman Juan Uribe charged the swinging bunt and fired home to cut down Zimmerman.
“Desi’s been swinging the bat good,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “He just got a little anxious.”
Chad Tracy, filling in for LaRoche, tried to hit a flyball to score Harper from third. Nolasco’s fastball tailed just enough that Tracy hit it off the end of the bat, and he popped it to shallow left. Harper tagged up as Carl Crawford made the catch about 15 feet behind the infield dirt. Harper drew a throw against the weak-armed Crawford but stopped short even as it sailed up the first base line.
The inning fell to Wilson Ramos. He chopped a 2-2, 95-mph fastball back to Nolasco. The pitcher trotted toward first and flipped the ball to Gonzalez. As all three runners skulked back to the dugout, the fans hurled boos.
“You get a guy on the ropes like that, you need to capitalize,” Tracy said. “We didn’t get it done.”
And so the Nationals still trailed entering the sixth inning. Zimmerman led off with another single, then went first to third when Werth rolled a single to left. Desmond atoned for his earlier failure in a clutch spot, flaring a single to center for the lone RBI of the Nationals’ night.
Puig squelched a minor Nationals rally in the seventh when he crashed into the side wall in right field with two outs to snag Anthony Rendon’s flyball. The catch would make any highlight reel, but it was not even his most remarkable defensive play of the night.
Harper lined a double into the right field corner to lead off the second. Werth followed with a flyball to right, pushing Puig back a few steps. Harper crouched into a modified sprinter’s stance on second, looking over his right shoulder. Puig’s feet pitter-pattered as he waited for the ball to descend. The moment lacked only a cinematic score.
Puig unleashed a preposterous throw. The ball sliced through the air on a spectacular arc, carrying from deep right to third base. Uribe summoned the courage to stand in the path of a baseball moving with roughly the force of a meteorite. The ball thudded into his glove as Harper dived headfirst. Uribe tagged Harper’s lower left leg before Harper’s fingers touched the bag, but umpire Eric Cooper signaled safe.
Nolasco’s very next pitch curved into the dirt and bounded past catcher A.J. Ellis. Harper scooted home and gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead. A fresh start still seemed vividly possible for the Nationals. By the end of the night, they could only look forward to another chance over the weekend, asking the same familiar questions.