In one end of the Washington Nationals’ otherwise empty clubhouse, Jayson Werth was in a whispered conversation with coach Tony Tarasco. At the other end, Manager Davey Johnson shuffled to his office from the cafeteria, a full black-plastic plate in hand. After Tarasco had walked away from his locker, Werth noticed the pack of reporters in the middle of the room.
“Do you guys need somebody to talk to?” Werth asked.
The cameras and microphones and tape recorders clambered toward Werth’s corner of the room. He was ready to deliver his message after the Nationals’ 5-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates plunged them to a new depth. The Nationals have lost five consecutive games and 10 of their past 12. They have reached a season-worst four games under .500 at 48-52. In the first game of hitting coach Rick Schu’s tenure, they had managed three hits and made moot rookie Taylor Jordan’s “stellar” 72 / 3 innings, in Johnson’s words.
Werth plopped into his chair, pulled a camouflage trucker cap over his slicked-back hair and, having taken stock of the decaying team around him, urged calm.
“Really, the thing about us right now, we’re a little snakebit,” Werth said. “Things aren’t going our way, and we’re not winning games. We need to find a way to win a game. The silver lining is no one else is winning, either.”
Werth alluded primarily to the Atlanta Braves, whose loss to the New York Mets held the Nationals’ deficit at eight games. The Philadelphia Phillies also fell, keeping them one game ahead. The problem with the Braves’ loss is that the Mets’ victory brought them to within two games of third-place Washington.
“The old cliché stands true — one day at a time,” Werth said. “We need to pull back a little bit and put things in perspective and look at the big picture. Right now things are tough. All in all, one day at a time, one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time, and we need to get this thing turned around. I’ve said it before. I believe in this team. I know it’s getting into late July, but there’s a lot of games to be played, and I still believe in these guys.”
In the morning, Schu reported for his first day of work on the monumental task of righting the Nationals’ offense. His diagnosis? “Relax a little bit and try not to get five hits in four at-bats,” Schu said. “Just kinda take one AB at a time and kinda slow things down a little bit.”
The advice didn’t take against Pirates flamethrower Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft. He held the Nationals to two hits over seven innings, and only Wilson Ramos’s solo homer to center field in the third inning blocked his bid for a shutout.
This may look like a misprint, but it is not: In their past 11 games, the Nationals have gone 6 for 78 with runners in scoring position. Cole limited their chances Monday night, but when they came the Nationals went 0 for 3.
“We’ve been pretty unlucky,” Werth said. “Hitting balls hard at people, guys making good plays on us. You talk about timely hitting. Lately, it’s been untimely hitting. Instead of getting the big hit, we get the ball that ends the rally. It needs to turn around. At some point, the tide has got to turn. Luck’s got to swing in our favor. Hopefully when it does, we can grab hold of it and run with it. It’s tough right now, no doubt.”
The fulcrum of the Nationals’ latest loss came in the second inning. Pedro Alvarez led off with a single just past second baseman Anthony Rendon’s dive, the ball trickling off his glove into right field. Russell Martin smacked another single, and Garrett Jones walked to load the bases with no outs.
Jordan had reached a point when he needed his ability to produce groundballs most — bases loaded, no outs. Neil Walker hit a slow roller to Rendon, who flipped to shortstop Ian Desmond for one out. Jordy Mercer whacked yet another grounder, and a chance to end the inning hopped toward third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
Since the second half started, the Nationals have leapt at every opportunity to make forehead-smacking miscues at pivotal moments. Zimmerman fielded the ball cleanly and fired to Rendon, who has been a second baseman for all of two months. As Zimmerman’s throw arrived, Rendon peeked at first base. “I think I just got a little too quick with it,” Rendon said. The ball thudded off his glove and dropped to the dirt.
“That was the mistake an inexperienced second baseman will make on a throw from third,” Johnson said. “You assume you’re going to catch it, and you peek towards the runner. It’s always that transition — you’ve got to see it in the glove before you do it.”
Jordan could have escaped with just one run having crossed. Instead, the Pirates scored another run and he still faced a mess. Cole, the pitcher, faked a bunt, pulled back the bat and ripped a grounder through the left side to drive home the Pirates’ third run.
Jordan received a reprieve when Rendon made a leaping grab of Starling Marte’s liner and started a double play to end the inning. On Sunday, they faced a 7-0 hole after two innings. The night before, it had been a two-run deficit. Now they trailed, 3-0, before they had taken their second turn at-bat.
The offense left Jordan little chance of claiming his first career win. He allowed nine hits and five runs, four of them earned and all but one preventable. Jordan struck out four and produced 14 groundouts and just two fly outs.
“I’m starting not to really care up who is up to bat,” Jordan said.
Jordan faced one batter over the minimum in his next four innings. With his bullpen depleted, Johnson let Jordan cruise into the eighth with just 88 pitches. Jordan retired the first two hitters he faced, and Johnson wanted to give him a chance to claim the win, so he left him in to face Alvarez, a left-hander. He laced a homer into the front row of the seats in left. Jordan crouched on the mound, watching the ball disappear.
He yielded one more single, then watched as Ian Krol let the run score. After the Nationals went in order in the ninth inning, they collected their things and retreated to the clubhouse. The thinning crowd hurled half-hearted boos.
“It seems like all year we’ve been talking about, it’s gonna turn,” Werth said. “Things are gonna turn. Things are going to go our way. We’re going to get a call. Really, it hasn’t yet.”