ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals knew the defense of their National League East title wouldn’t be easy. But one month into the grinding six-month season, and against their toughest division opponent, they continue to make it even more difficult on themselves.
They have yet to play a consistent stretch of crisp, all-around baseball, particularly against the Atlanta Braves, the team that revamped its roster to compete with them. The Nationals dropped their fifth straight against the Braves on Tuesday night, 8-1, to cap their first losing month since August 2011. Gio Gonzalez coughed up five runs over four uneven innings.
The offense was no-hit by Atlanta starter Tim Hudson for four innings. The bullpen was taxed again. The defeat left the Nationals at 13-14, and dropped them under .500 for the second time, a mark they did not hit last season. The closest the Nationals came to a .500 month during 2012 was May’s 15-13 mark. They have lost nine straight games to the Braves dating from last season.
Following the loss, Manager Davey Johnson, who again called for more changes to the lineup for the next game, asked reporters: “Do we have to talk about this one?” The clubhouse was utterly quiet, normal for a loss, and Ian Desmond went discreetly from player to player and chatted briefly, with the apparent intent of gathering them for a meeting once the media left.
“Everyone’s trying to do better for the team, but I feel like you have to put yourself aside and start playing for the team,” Desmond said. “You know what I mean? We’ve got to throw the ball over the plate, we’ve got to hit strikes and we’ve got to field the ball. That’s what it boils down to.”
The Nationals’ starting rotation, as it was last season, has been the backbone.
But when it has struggled, there is little room for error. The Nationals’ slow-starting offense is in the bottom portion of the league, as is the bullpen. The defense has committed a major league-worst 23 errors.
“The pitchers haven’t been consistent, a couple guys struggling, some key guys on the offense are not doing the things they’re capable of doing,” Johnson said. “Trying to get going. It snowballs.”
Gonzalez put the Nationals in a hole with his first two pitches. Braves leadoff hitter Andrelton Simmons drilled a home run in the bottom of the first inning. Gonzalez walked two batters, gave up an RBI double to Evan Gattis and the Nationals trailed 2-0.
The following inning, Gonzalez yielded two more runs, allowing yet another leadoff hitter to reach. Hudson doubled to start the frame and scored on a single by Chris Johnson. Gonzalez made a spectacular diving catch on a pop-up bunt from Simmons for the first out.
But he was again plagued by high pitch counts and shaky command that left balls over the plate.
Gonzalez fired a wild pitch to put Johnson in scoring position and Freddie Freeman scored him with a single. He managed to strike out nine Braves over four innings but walked five, throwing 96 pitches over four innings but only 57 for strikes.
“One of those things you just can’t explain,” Gonzalez said. “They see the ball pretty good, and then all of a sudden they’re swinging and missing. If you can find the answer, I’d be more than happy to listen. Because I would love to find it right now myself.”
Gonzalez sandwiched his best start of the season with two head-scratching clunkers. He tossed an eight-inning, one-hitter against a potent Cincinnati Reds lineup on April 25, his last start, with two five-run, four-inning performances.
The Braves’ feast-or-famine offense of strikeouts and extra-base hits has gnawed at Gonzalez and the Nationals’ pitching staff this season. The Nationals, however, have only worsened the dilemma, walked 27 Braves hitters, three times intentionally, in five games.
The pitching misery reached a head in the fifth inning when the deficit grew to 8-1. Zach Duke came on in relief of Gonzalez. With two outs, Duke faced Hudson, who entered hitting .364, and gave up a drive to right field. Bryce Harper, playing right field instead of his normal left for the injured Jayson Werth (sore ankle and hamstring), timed his jump at the right field wall well. The ball hit Harper’s glove square in the mitt but popped out when Harper’s body hit the wall. The ball bounced over the fence and the crowd cheered loudly for Hudson.
“I had it in my glove,” said Harper, who flashed a large bruise across his left side caused by the scraping against the wall. “It was a homer and got up pretty high and then my glove hit the wall then out of my glove. I shoulda caught it.”
The Nationals mustered little against Hudson, who earned his 200th career victory. He carved through their lineup again, allowing only one run on three hits over seven innings. He didn’t surrender a hit untill Tyler Moore doubled to lead off the fifth inning.
Moore scored the only run, too, on an RBI groundout by Wilson Ramos.
The Nationals are still a confident bunch, a team whose talent separates them from most opponents. But not against the Braves. Johnson has feared they are pressing too much, saddled with sky-high expectations for the first time and each trying their best to reach them.
“I don’t think it’s trying to do too much,” Desmond said. “I think it’s trying to do your best. Sometimes good is just good enough. If everyone is just good, we’re a really good ballclub. Everyone at their best, we’re an excellent ballclub. But not everyone’s gonna be at their best every day. You have to be good more than you’re bad, and excellent sometimes.”