PITTSBURGH — Davey Johnson will wear a loss. Washington Nationals players adore their manager because he understands the challenge of hitting a round ball with a round bat in front of thousands of people, when your teammates need you the most, when your nerves are shot and your knuckles turn white.
But after he watched the Nationals’ 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday night, Johnson stood in the visiting manager’s office at PNC Park, hands on his hips, and did not hide his disappointment. The Nationals had struck out 11 times, all of them swinging, after the Pirates lost their starting pitcher in the second inning to a back injury. They had stranded five men in the final two innings, four of them in scoring position.
After their offense dragged the Nationals to their third straight loss, with crucial strikeouts by Danny Espinosa, Rick Ankiel and, to end the game with men on second and third, Ryan Zimmerman, Johnson flatly demanded more of his hitters.
“I liked the matchups we had in situations we had men in scoring position,” Johnson said. “And we just didn’t swing the bats. We had pitches to hit and we swung through them. I don’t know. I don’t know if guys are feeling too much pressure because we’re having trouble generating runs but, boy, guys, the pitcher’s in a jam. Just relax and if he throws it over, hit it. But tonight was especially frustrating. No doubt about it.”
Following an electric series over the weekend against their rival at packed Nationals Park, the Nationals came here to face a nondescript opponent at an empty ballpark — 11,478 came Wednesday — under a gray sky spitting intermittent rain. A letdown could have been predicted, but not to the depths Washington reached Wednesday night.
The Pirates (14-16) lost starting pitcher Erik Bedard to back spasms with no outs in the second inning. The Nationals (18-12) responded with two runs, five hits and 11 strikeouts off five relievers in the final eight innings. In 30 games this year, the Nationals have produced five hits or less 11 times and 10 strikeouts or more nine times. Only the Pirates and San Diego Padres have scored fewer runs per game.
Wednesday, the Nationals’ offense rendered moot six solid innings from Ross Detwiler, who gave up three runs on seven hits. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein said Nationals hitters need to focus more on identifying their strengths and not chasing pitches out of their zones. Too often, he said, they have been submitting, letting pitchers control at-bats and swinging at pitches they’re likely to miss.
“If you’re looking in places where you know it’s really not your strength, and the ball goes into your strength zone and you’re really not keyed into that area, the tendency is to miss it,” Eckstein said.
There isn’t a lone culprit on an offense that has struck out 23 times over the past two games. But in the middle of the loss stood Espinosa, the second-year second baseman fighting to find his footing. He snapped an 0-for-10 slump in the seventh inning and scored Washington’s second run. But his National League-leading 39th strikeout provided the fulcrum for the loss.
Trailing by a run in the eighth, Zimmerman doubled off Jason Grilli, the fifth Pirates pitcher, with one out. The Pirates responded by intentionally walking cleanup hitter Adam LaRoche for the second time, a sign of how teams view the middle of the Nationals’ lineup with Michael Morse and Jayson Werth sidelined.
“The pressure builds,” Eckstein said. “Because I believe in a lineup that’s best when each guy knows that the guy behind him can do the job, so then you can be patient and be a little more aggressive in your zones, not expanding. And if they want to walk you, pitch around you, whatever, the next guy picks up the load. And at times when that’s happened, we just haven’t taken advantage of the next guy picking up that load. But at other times we have.”
Pinch-hitter Roger Bernadina drew a walk, too, bringing up Espinosa. He worked a 3-1 count, and Grilli threw a fastball down and away. The pitch could have been ball four, could have scored the tying run. Instead, home plate umpire Gerry Davis called the borderline pitch a strike. Grilli came back with a 93-mph fastball down the middle, and Espinosa missed.
“When it comes down to it, I think we have to get better with two strikes,” Zimmerman said. “No matter who it is, we’ve got to shorten up a little bit maybe, especially in those situations with one out and runners in scoring position. I’m not saying anyone in particular. We’ve all been, unfortunately, guilty of it sometimes this year.”
Ankiel had a chance with two outs, but Grilli struck him out, too, with a fastball around the eyes.
“You’ve got to make contact,” Johnson said. “You can’t drive a run in without making contact. Sometimes we expand and chase balls early in the count and we just can’t do that. That’s not being a good hitter.”
The Nationals had another chance in the ninth inning off closer Joel Hanrahan. Ian Desmond’s one-out double put two runners in scoring position with the Nationals down by two and Bryce Harper and Zimmerman due up. Harper — the only National to start both games in Pittsburgh and not strike out — popped to shallow left.
Zimmerman, who the night before sparked a ninth-inning rally, jumped ahead 2-0. He took two sliders and a fastball on the outside corner to run the count to 3-2. Hanrahan pumped a 96-mph fastball. Zimmerman swung through it.
“I got a pitch I could hit,” Zimmerman said. “I just didn’t hit it.”
So it has been for the Nationals. Before the game, Johnson said he would not audition his players, toggling them in and out of the lineup based on game-by-game performances. Over nine sour innings, whiff after whiff wasting chance after chance, Johnson had another chance to revise his philosophy and change the players in the lineup. Would he?
“I don’t know,” Johnson said. “I’m getting over this one before I think about tomorrow.”