Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Livan Hernandez's uncharacteristic wildness cost the Nationals tonight.
There wasn't much else to tonight's 8-3 loss to the Tigers. This one boiled down to Livan Hernandez's uncharacteristic wildness and Justin Verlander's dominance against a lineup that was mostly overmatched (aside from Adam Dunn and Roger Bernadina's solo homers).
And there's no shame in that. Justin Verlander is supposed to beat Livan Hernandez most times they face each other.
But it becomes a bit more disturbing when this happens in the middle of a growing stretch of poor games by a Nationals squad that not long ago was being touted as one of baseball's biggest surprises but suddenly is playing like a last-place team.
Did you know the Nats have now lost 20 of their last 31 games? Yep, since reaching the high-water mark of 20-15 back on May 13 in Colorado, they've played at a .355 clip. They've been stuck in last place in the NL East for the better part of two weeks.
"Earlier, I thought we had run into some bad luck. Things weren't going our way," Jim Riggleman said. "But we've played about the way our record indicates. That's about what we are right now. Our record says it."
No one's debating that point. The Nationals are a team capable of playing good baseball on any given night. They just don't seem to play good baseball more than a few times a week, especially when Stephen Strasburg isn't on the mound.
Hernandez had been a model of consistency all season, truly giving his team a chance to win every time he took the mound. So tonight's performance might well have been a one-time occurrence. Still, it was frustrating to watch. A guy who usually has little trouble finding the strike zone issued six walks, his most in more than three years.
Worse, three of the free passes came in the second inning alone, leading to a four-run rally that put the Tigers ahead for good.
"I was a little surprised how it happened in the second," Riggleman said. "If they hit him, they hit him. But for him to walk people, that's very uncharacteristic."
Hernandez was at a loss when trying to explain what happened.
"In that inning, I tried to throw a strike," he said. "The slider goes outside. The curveball goes inside to a right-hander. The sinker goes down. I tried to figure it out, and it wasn't happening. This happens sometimes to a lot of pitchers, and today it happened to me."
Somehow, the Nationals still were in the ballgame in the seventh inning, trailing 5-3. And they had hit a couple of bombs off Verlander early, with Dunn crushing a 95 mph fastball 427 feet to center field and Roger Bernadina belting another 95 mph heater well over the right-field fence. But both of those homers were solo shots, adding to the frustration.
"He's not going to give me a pitch like that with runners on base," said Dunn, who has 15 homers this season, 11 of them solo homers. "That's what people don't realize. I can't pick and choose when I hit a home run. And if I could, I would have zero solos every year. Pitchers, they want to get quick outs and sometimes they mess up. You usually don't get the same pitches with runners on. And it's even harder when you get runners in scoring position."
Perhaps that explains why Dunn is 0-for-26 with two outs and runners in scoring position this season. Then again, Ryan Zimmerman is hitting .348 (8-for-23) with two doubles and two homers in similar situations.
Zimmerman only came up once with a man on base tonight: in the sixth with Cristian Guzman on second and one out. He proceeded to strike out on a high fastball from Verlander that registered 101 mph. Eat your heart out, Strasburg.
Zimmerman has known the Detroit right-hander for years. They both grew up in Virginia and once faced each other in college, when Verlander was at Old Dominion and Zimmerman was at UVA.
"He always pitched on the weekend, but when Virginia went down to play Old Dominion, he pitched on a weekday because I guess it was their whole season to beat us," Zimmerman recalled. "That was his junior year, and he was throwing 100 then."
So chalk this one up as a predictable loss to one of the sport's best pitchers. But the Nats haven't been beaten by aces every night.
"We're definitely not playing as good as we were," Zimmerman said. "We've been battling. But for as bad as we've played, we're four games under .500. Win tomorrow, go back home three games under .500 and go from there. The goal is to be within striking distance in July and August, and then anything can happen."
Fair enough. But if the Nationals are going to get back to within striking distance, they're going to need to start getting some more consistent performances from everyone on the roster.
For the season's first six weeks, this club played good baseball on a fairly regular basis. Over the last four weeks, it has played sub-par baseball on a fairly regular basis.
It's up to these guys to prove this recent stretch is not a true indicator of this team's true ability.