Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
None of the Nationals looked comfortable at the plate tonight.
Of course, the way things have been going for the last month, you just had a feeling they'd find a way to miss out. And sure enough, when Ivan Rodriguez came to bat in the sixth with the bases loaded, nobody out and right-hander Peter Moylan fresh out of the Braves bullpen, that dreaded moment occurred.
Rodriguez took a hack at Moylan's first pitch and smacked it right at shortstop Yunel Escobar, who set in motion the 6-4-3 double play that all but killed any chance the Nationals had of winning this game.
"I think that's a good pitch to hit," Rodriguez said. "In that situation, with guys like that who throw sidearm, they're very difficult to pick up the ball. Sometimes, you've got to jump early, and the first pitch he throws for a strike you've got to make a swing at it. That's what I did. I hit it hard, right at him."
There's no sense debating hitting philosophy with a guy who may become the first catcher in history to join the 3,000-hit club, so you have to give Pudge the benefit of the doubt here. But the squandered opportunity did expose one of this team's biggest weaknesses: They don't give themselves very many chances to score runs, and when they do, they often fail to produce.
The margin for error with this team is razor-thin. Thus, there have been plenty of games like tonight's 4-1 loss to Atlanta sprinkled throughout this season. It was a winnable game, but the Nats didn't do what was needed to win it.
True, they faced an opposing starter in Jurrjens who looked like a dominant ace, not a guy making his return from a two-month stint on the DL. But they also chased a lot of pitches out of the strike zone, especially high fastballs, leading to an astounding 12 strikeouts.
The Nationals also didn't get a good enough performance out of their starting pitcher. J.D. Martin was by no means terrible -- he wound up allowing three runs over five innings -- but he hurt his chances when he needed 37 pitches to make it through the first, racking up a pitch count that didn't allow him to remain in the game long enough to earn a quality start.
"I was just all over the place today," said the right-hander, who is now 0-4 despite a 3.38 ERA. "I'm just putting myself in a hard position to get deeper into the game. I need to do a better job with that."
Jim Riggleman also needs to do a better job putting his players in situations that play to their strengths, not their weaknesses. In an absolute head-scratcher of a move, Riggleman had Ian Desmond take over in right field in the bottom of the seventh of what was then a 3-1 game, then shuffled a bunch of guys around four batters later to leave Alberto Gonzalez in right field for the first time in his career.
If you'd like to read Riggleman's full explanation of that sequence, you can find it at the end of tonight's gameday thread. In a nutshell, he was trying to ensure Desmond would get a chance to face Billy Wagner in the ninth inning, but then realized in mid-inning that Gonzalez has been working in the outfield lately and was the better choice.
Honestly, the explanation didn't make a lot of sense. Riggleman said he was out of right-handed-hitting outfielders. But Michael Morse had just pinch-hit in the top of the seventh for Roger Bernadina and easily could have taken over in right field himself. Oh, and Wagner made Desmond look foolish in striking him out to end the game.
The move ultimately didn't cost the Nats this one, but what after the fiasco in Houston last month in which Cristian Guzman dropped a sinking liner to right to lose in heartbreaking fashion, why risk another catastrophe with a career infielder playing the outfield?
The Nationals have now lost 14 of 18 since sweeping the Pirates in Stephen Strasburg's debut series. They've been horrendous on the road, losing 21 of their last 27 away from the District. And though they return home for a nice stretch of 10 games heading into the All-Star break, they'll be facing some stiff competition in the Mets, Padres and Giants.
Players seem to understand the importance of closing out the first half on a more-positive note.
"We need something," Adam Dunn said. "We're not playing up to our capabilities, and I don't know why that is. It's not lack of effort, it's not lack of talent, it's not any of that. We're just not playing well."
As Riggleman put it: "We've got to find something positive."
The test begins in earnest tomorrow night against the Mets.