ATLANTA — Before Thursday's 3-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, Matt Wieters sat at his locker and stared for a while, his disengaged gaze turning from some nothingness in front of him, to the golf tournament on the TV screen above him, and back again. Wieters is usually more talkative, rarely so locked in his own world.
But Wieters, a four-time all-star, entered Thursday with two hits in his 31 September at-bats, having all but sealed the worst offensive season of his career. Perhaps that spot a few feet in front of him is the only place he hasn't looked for answers.
After another strong start from Tanner Roark, the Nationals (92-60) do not have many questions left. Bryce Harper will be back. Their playoff rotation is fairly self-explanatory. The back of their bullpen is, finally, organized in functional fashion. But little soft spots linger under the pleasant shadow cast by the division title they've had locked up for weeks. Wieters's struggles are one such sore spot.
Before the game, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker — going out of his way to point out that he is a non-Catholic, and therefore not necessarily qualified to say so — speculated that Wieters is spending this month in purgatory. Purgatory, in Baker's baseball-driven mind, is that place where a hitter is "behind the fastball and ahead of the curveball." In other words, no man's land.
Wieters has been unable to find much offensive consistency this season. At .225, he is hitting nearly 30 points below his career average, slugging 70 points below his career norm, and reaching base less frequently than ever before.
Baker said he was grateful for Wieters's pitch-calling talents, which have helped pitchers like Roark (13-10) establish new approaches. Baker also said he was grateful Wieters's defense never succumbed to his offensive struggles.
But in the fourth, Wieters tried to pick off Ozzie Albies with an ill-advised snap throw to first, one he said later he shouldn't have made. He didn't have a good grip. That he threw the ball anyway exposed him as a man trying to do too much. The throw allowed Albies to move to third, from where he eventually scored on a sacrifice fly as part of a two-run inning that eventually made the difference.
Roark and his defense needed near-perfection to beat Braves knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who all but shut them down. In the first inning, Ryan Zimmerman — hitting .357 with four homers this season against Dickey coming in — hit a line drive just inside the left field foul pole. That homer was his 34th, a career high, set eight seasons after he set his previous mark. It was also one of just two hits the Nationals would get against Dickey until the eighth.
Wieters is not the only National struggling. Jayson Werth entered Thursday 4 for 41 this month. Common sense foretold some struggles for the veteran, who missed nearly three months with a broken foot. But with Howie Kendrick looming as a potential left field option, those struggles could force the Nationals into a difficult October decision with their emotional leader. Werth went 0 for 4 and has 10 games to find his rhythm.
"Tonight doesn't really count. The knuckleball doesn't count," Baker said. ". . . He'll be fine, just as long as he keeps getting at-bats and he feels well."
Dickey retired 14 straight Nationals from the third inning to the eighth, when Anthony Rendon hit his career-high 40th double to give them a rare runner in scoring position. As it happened, that rally fell to Wieters with two out and Rendon on third. Wieters singled through the left side to score Rendon, his first RBI in two weeks. Hot streaks must start somewhere.
"I actually felt good with the swing that I went with tonight, knuckleball or not," Wieters said. "I wanted to try some new things and it felt free and easy, which is good."
Unfortunately, the Nationals' scoring ended there. Baker had promised his regulars that they would leave the game when Roark did — as it turned out, before the bottom of the eighth. Trailing by a run, but with a late-night flight to New York looming, Baker subbed out nearly all his starters except Werth, Rendon and Trea Turner in a strange substitution spree that took 10 inexplicable minutes and saw Wilmer Difo and Victor Robles take the field, then leave it.
Baker said later that Sammy Solis took the mound before he could report the Nationals' changes to the umpiring crew. As a result, as soon as Solis engaged on the mound, he was locked into the ninth spot in the order, where Difo had served as a pinch hitter shortly before. Difo, therefore, could not replace Turner at shortstop.
As for Robles, Baker had not planned on pinch-running Rafael Bautista in the previous half-inning, but a mix-up put the rookie in the game. He had to stay, all of which left Baker scrambling to reconfigure his batting order to account for it all.
"We just had a miscommunication," Baker said. "and screwed it up."
In the end, the Nationals couldn't rally anyway, and fell in the finale to finish the season series with the Braves 10-9. They flew to New York on Thursday night, where they will begin their penultimate road series of the regular season — and where they hope a few key hitters, like Wieters and Werth, might finally find their answers.
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