CLEVELAND — After yet another game of offensive futility, the Washington Nationals are back at where they began the season: with as many losses as wins. They fell to .500 for the 12th time after a 2-1 walk-off loss to the Cleveland Indians that came with equal amounts of drama and frustration.
The Nationals lost the game in the ninth inning when, on a rapid-fire play with one out and two runners on, Drew Stubbs scored from third on Jason Kipnis’s hard grounder to first baseman Adam LaRoche. Stubbs, running on contact, beat Kurt Suzuki’s sweeping tag.
Replays clearly showed Kipnis veer onto the grass and into LaRoche’s line of sight for his throw home. Kipnis ducked and the throw, slightly off-target, was too late. Umpire Brian Knight signaled Stubbs safe, securing the victory for Cleveland in the opening game of this three-game interleague series at Progressive Field.
LaRoche and Suzuki later acknowledged Kipnis may have interfered with the throw, but they refused to blame that for the loss.
“Looking back, I guess he was on the grass a little bit, but that happens quite a bit and doesn’t get called very much,” LaRoche said. The first baseman, like Manager Davey Johnson, didn’t see Kipnis run onto the grass until viewing replays after the game. “Can’t count on that. That’s tough going up the line, not having a great view. But I just threw it at him and he ducked. Almost got him, but we didn’t.”
Added Suzuki, who said he didn’t see LaRoche’s throw until late: “He beat the throw. It’s as simple as that. Stubbs is probably one of the fastest guys in the league.”
Gio Gonzalez provided seven strong innings against a potent Indians lineup, striking out eight but walking four, all with two outs. Tyler Clippard worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth. Fernando Abad, unscored upon until Friday, allowed a single to Stubbs in the ninth and the Indians executed a textbook hit-and-run with Michael Bourn smacking a single. Bourn stole second, setting up the decisive sequence.
The Nationals managed just two hits against Cleveland starter Justin Masterson, and their lone run came in the third when Suzuki scored on a wild pitch. The scuffling offense rendered moot a strong start from Gonzalez, who yielded just three hits and one run.
Gonzalez carried a career 0.68 ERA over four starts at Progressive Field into the game. Early on, he filled up the strike zone with heavy doses of his lively fastball. Gonzalez struck out five of the first nine batters he faced.
He left a fastball up against an old nemesis, Ryan Raburn, in the fourth inning that tied the game at 1. Raburn, who entered the game hitting .545 (6 for 11) off Gonzalez, hit cleanup on Friday and smashed that fastball the opposite way into the seats in right-center field.
Gonzalez and Masterson, who fanned 10, dueled for seven innings.
Gonzalez created trouble of his own in the sixth inning. After two quick outs, he walked three straight batters to load the bases. Pitching coach Steve McCatty came out for a talk and Gonzalez escaped by inducing Mark Reynolds to pop up to second baseman Steve Lombardozzi to end the inning.
Gonzalez walked one more batter, Stubbs, with two outs in the next inning. McCatty again emerged from the dugout as the infielders converged on the mound. With his pitch count at 122, already the most he has thrown as a National, Gonzalez got Bourn to roll over a fastball to end the inning on his 127th pitch. Gonzalez walked off the mound into the dugout leaving most everything his left arm could provide. The rest would require an offensive burst that never came.
The passive Nationals offense reared its ugly head on Friday. An example: Denard Span worked a one-out walk in the fifth inning. Roger Bernadina swung at the first pitch he saw, a high fastball, and popped out. With Ryan Zimmerman batting, Span stole second. The score was tied 1-1 and the Nationals had their three-hole hitter up with two outs and a runner in scoring position. Zimmerman jumped ahead 3-0 on Masterson. He took two sinking fastballs down the middle to run the count full, then flailed at Masterson’s low wipeout slider.
“It’s getting old,” LaRoche said. “Give [Masterson] credit, he had good stuff. But still you got nine big league hitters in there. You think we could get more than a couple of hits.”
Throughout their offensive struggles, Johnson has pleaded with the Nationals hitters to be more aggressive. He and hitting coach Rick Eckstein have urged hitters to attack hittable pitches — particularly their biggest weakness, the fastball — and don’t let the pitchers dictate the at-bats. There have been a few glimpses of that but not enough to win consistently. The Nationals haven’t fielded their projected everyday lineup since April 14, and Bryce Harper is still out with a balky left knee.
“Some of the hitters are very patient in looking for pitches,” Johnson said. “I prefer to be more aggressive, but that’s who we are.”
Who they are is a .500 team in mid-June.
“It feels like we’re 15 games under .500, so I guess that’s the good news that we are at .500 as bad as we played,” LaRoche said. “Time runs out eventually. So we all just need to do what we’re capable of doing.”
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