Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Luis Atilano can't corral Mike Leake's fourth-inning comebacker.
The clock nearly read 1 a.m., the Nats had just endured an 8-7 loss that included a 2-hour, 40-minute rain delay and ended on a controversial third strike call with Dunn at the plate.
No one would have faulted Dunn had he just quickly showered, dressed and departed for the team hotel. Yet he was determined to linger around, determined to move beyond this exhausting loss and immediately start preparing for the next night's game.
In a town where he often was accused of not caring enough, Adam Dunn certainly didn't look like a guy who dislikes baseball.
Perhaps that's because he's playing on a team full of guys who demand hard work from themselves and from their teammates, no matter what the standings say.
"Ever since I've been up here, that's the one thing I've noticed about this team," Dunn said. "It would be very easy -- last year, this year -- to just kind of pack it in, with a game like this especially. And not one time since I've been here has that happened."
The Nationals have lost four games in a row, and they've done so in a maddeningly frustrating fashion. They couldn't score all weekend in Florida. Now they can't get a decent performance from their starting pitcher in Cincinnati. So after waiting out a gargantuan rain delay and then immediately giving up three more runs to fall behind 8-1 in the sixth, what happened? They nearly stormed all the way back to win.
"We've been fighting since day one," said Michael Morse, who keyed the Nats' six-run sixth with a bases-clearing triple. "Sometimes it doesn't show on the scoreboard, but we don't give up. There's no one on this team that gives up. It doesn't matter what the score says. We're going to try our best. We think we're in every game when we're out there."
There are plenty worse traits for a ballclub to be known for than refusing to give up when things turn sour. It may not satisfy everyone who wants to see the Nationals make the leap from last-place club to contender, but it is an important step in the ultimate progression of this franchise.
There were times over the last five years when losing seemed to be accepted inside that clubhouse. That's not the case these days. For proof of that, you only needed to see Jim Riggleman berating plate umpire Marty Foster after calling Dunn out on what appeared to be a low 3-2 pitch to end the game.
"I hate getting beat," the manager said, still fuming 15 minutes later. "I know our ballplayers are scrapping, suffering with this. I keep telling them it's going to turn for us. It's got to turn, so they'll believe what I'm telling them, you know?"
Before things can turn, the Nationals need to -- among other things -- find some more stability at the back end of their rotation. At the moment, only Stephen Strasburg and Livan Hernandez are capable of giving their team a chance to win on a regular basis. The rest of the pack is not.
Take tonight's starter: Luis Atilano. Riggleman was asked this afternoon if, given Atilano's struggles in his one start at Class AAA Syracuse last week, he was concerned about the right-hander entering tonight's game.
"Am I concerned? Yeah," the manager said. "But Luis has thrown a lot of good ballgames for us."
Turns out Riggleman had good reason to be concerned. Atilano looked very much like the pitcher who struggled prior to the All-Star break and then again during the break in the minors. Knocked out after only four innings, Atilano has now put up the following combined pitching line over his last four outings (counting the Syracuse start): 15 1/3 innings, 24 hits, 19 earned runs, 10 walks, seven strikeouts.
That's not big-league material. So what does the future hold for him?
"I don't know," Riggleman said. "He's scheduled to pitch Sunday. We'll re-evaluate it, I guess. But he just carried that performance from Syracuse into this ballgame. It wasn't very good."
Even if he stays in the rotation for another turn, Atilano may not get many more chances to turn things around. The impending signing of Cuban right-hander Yuneski Maya, who Mike Rizzo said could be pitching in the majors within weeks, adds yet another arm to a stable of Nationals starters on the verge of joining the rotation. Between Maya, Scott Olsen, Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann and Jason Marquis, there doesn't seem to be much hope for Atilano to stick around.
Rizzo owes it to the rest of the professionals in the Nats' clubhouse -- the guys who refuse to admit defeat when all signs point to this season becoming a lost cause -- to supplement them with the best he can. Whether that proves to be Maya or Olsen or Detwiler or Zimmermann or whoever, the time has come.
These Nationals must do whatever they can to try to put the best possible product on the field on a daily basis, giving themselves the best possible chance to win that night's game.
Because if they don't, what's the point of Dunn's late-night video study session? This guy wants to win. With this team. Right now.
And that sentiment is shared by just about every other player inside the Nationals' clubhouse. No matter what their record shows.