Nationals center fielder Bryce Harper throws his helmet and bat after striking out in the bottom of the eighth against the Dodgers. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

The Washington Nationals carried into the season the expectation of greatness, and Sunday afternoon they grasped for competence. They have played all summer as if searching for the bottom. They may now know what the abyss looks like. It looks like their all-star starting pitcher walking off the mound after a seven-run shellacking, like a lineup that manages four hits, like a season that once brimmed with anticipation threatening to slide away.

At least the Nationals hope it cannot get worse than the 9-2 beating they suffered Sunday at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Jordan Zimmermann surrendered seven runs and recorded six outs. Remove Jayson Werth’s two solo home runs, and the rest of the Nationals went 0 for 21 with nine strikeouts and no walks in seven innings against Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ incandescent ace.

The worst start of Zimmermann’s career doubled as perhaps these Nationals’ ugliest day. They were outhit 15-4 and trailed by eight runs after the fourth inning. In the ninth, as lightning flashed beyond half-empty Nationals Park, reliever Fernando Abad walked a Dodgers relief pitcher to load the bases. Afterward, they still held tight to the belief they can be great.

“I think at any moment, this team could take off,” Werth said. “But I’m not going to get into the doom-and-gloom stuff, because we’ve got way too many games to play. I believe in this team. I’ve said it from the beginning. We got a long way to go. We’ll be fine. We’re a good team.”

They certainly could be a good team in 64 remaining games. At the moment, they are a 48-50 team that has lost eight of 10. Despite the thoroughness of the defeat, the Nationals’ standing in the National League East remained the same, seven games behind the Atlanta Braves. The Braves and second-place Phillies also fell, so all they lost was a day on the calendar. By all appearances and indications, the Nationals have maintained a harmonious clubhouse and, despite occasionally lacking fundamentals, an appropriate focus.

“There’s a good attitude,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I’m the one that’s frustrated. I’m the one that has trouble sleeping. I’m feeling like we’re going to be fine.”

“I feel that guys each day are coming, giving their all for that game,” said reliever Ross Ohlendorf, who saved the Nationals’ bullpen with six solid relief innings. “I expect us to start reeling off a bunch of wins. A lot of us have played enough where we’ve gotten in the routine of forgetting the games you had before and focusing on the game you’ve got that day.”

On Saturday night, as the Nationals bungled scoring countless scoring opportunities in a 3-1 loss, the Nationals Park crowd hurled frequent boos. On Sunday, they sat in stunned silence. They had never seen Zimmermann absorb such a beating or experience the indignity of an exit after the second inning.

As the Dodgers drilled Zimmermann, Johnson worried about the lingering neck stiffness Zimmermann has pitched through for much of the season. That was actually the best news the Nationals could cull from the afternoon. Zimmermann said his neck felt “awesome” and “the best I’ve felt in a while.”

His trouble arose from an extended layoff. The neck pain, possibly a byproduct of a pinched nerve, prevented him from pitching in the all-star game. He took four days off from throwing. When he returned Sunday, he had lost the feel for his pitches.

“The command wasn’t there today,” Zimmermann said. “I pitched the same way. Some games, you get away with it. Some games, whatever you throw up there is getting hit hard.”

Zimmermann danced around two singles in the first inning. In the second, the Dodgers devoured him whole. In his first 19 starts this season, Zimmermann had issued multiple walks only five times and yielded multiple home runs in three. In the second inning Sunday, he did both.

In his first at-bat off the disabled list, center fielder Matt Kemp crushed a home run into the left field seats. After Carl Crawford’s RBI single and Nick Punto’s walk, Hanley Ramirez blasted a hanging slider over the left field fence. Kemp finalized the damage with an RBI double to left. Zimmermann’s ERA rose from 2.58 to 3.01.

“He’s allowed to have one bad game,” Werth said.

Less than two innings into the game, the Nationals confronted Kershaw equipped with a 7-0 lead. Werth greeted him with a mammoth homer over the visitors’ bullpen. In the seventh, he clobbered another homer, his 12th this year. The rest of the Nationals’ lineup produced nothing against the game’s best left-hander. Bryce Harper, batting leadoff for his first encounter with Kershaw as Johnson benched Denard Span, went 0 for 3 and struck out twice against the ace.

“He’s one of the best guys in the game,” Werth said. “I was lucky enough to get some pitches I could handle. I’m sure he would tell you he missed a spot. When you get a guy like that and he throws the ball down the middle, you got to capitalize on it.”

Ohlendorf stemmed the Dodgers’ attack. After he allowed two runs in the fourth, every Dodgers starter had scored a run except Kershaw, who had driven in a run with a groundout. But Ohlendorf continued his commendable season by allowing no more, firing 88 pitches in relief.

The performance could not stifle the Nationals’ frustration. In the eighth inning, Harper batted against reliever Brandon League with two outs and a man on third. He whiffed at a splitter in the dirt. He threw down his bat and tossed his helmet aside. He walked slowly toward the Nationals’ dugout, where they could only hope they had found the bottom.

“The first two were pretty painful,” Zimmermann said of the series. “I wanted to come out there and go deep in the game, and I wasn’t able to do that. Losing these three kind of hurts a little bit, but we’ll be back tomorrow and we’ll be ready to play.”