Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Livan Hernandez suffered through his worst start of the season.
Sign No. 2 it was a bad night: Multiple players use the word "embarrassed."
Sign No. 3 it was a bad night: Hours after the franchise's great young hope went on the disabled list for the second time in a month, said ballclub went out and lost 9-1 to a Cubs team whose manager abruptly retired 24 hours earlier.
Surely, there have been worse days in Nationals history. This, however, would probably rank among the bottom five.
As if Stephen Strasburg's return trip to the DL (perhaps for the remainder of the season) wasn't bad enough, the Nats then went out and played a stinker of a ballgame that prompted Jim Riggleman to address his players and demand better effort.
"We've just got to play with more energy," the manager said. "Even though the game is flattening us out because we're out there in the field a long time, we've got to find a way. We've got to turn it up a notch."
"Our guys play hard," he said. "They play with intensity. But it's a 162-game schedule, and you've got to play 162 games. Tonight, I felt like we allowed the game situation -- the long innings and stuff, just our body language on the field -- it allowed us to have an aura hanging over us that it's just not happening for us tonight."
That "aura" started hovering over Nationals Park during a laborious top of the third in which Livan Hernandez allowed the Cubs' first seven batters to reach base, five of them ultimately scoring before the inning came to its merciful conclusion after 44 pitches.
"Nothing worked," said Hernandez, who wound up throwing an astronomical 121 pitches in only 4 1/3 innings. "I'm a little mad. I'm very disappointed because of what I do today. ... It's a rough day. We lost, and we lost ugly."
Down five runs early with many in the sparse crowd of 17,921 rooting for the Cubs, the Nationals essentially rolled over and played dead the rest of the evening. For six innings, they produced exactly one hit off Casey Coleman, Chicago's heretofore anonymous rookie right-hander making his second career start.
Players credited Coleman for pitching well. At the same time, they acknowledged they could have attacked the 23-year-old with a little more gusto.
"I'm not trying to take anything away from that pitcher. He deserves everything he did tonight," Willie Harris said. "But at the same time, I think we could have given a better effort."
It wouldn't be so alarming had this been an isolated performance in the middle of a hot streak. But this game came on the heels of another uninspired showing yesterday in Philadelphia (a 6-0 loss to Roy Oswalt) while also dropping the Nationals to a season-low 19 games under .500.
It's been a difficult month for this club. Strasburg's latest injury is tough enough to accept. Throw in Josh Willingham's season-ending injury, Adam Dunn's 7-for-52, 23-strikeout slump and a 7-14 August record, and you've got the potential for things to completely unravel.
"We've got to come together as a unit and really try to finish this thing off strong and not give up on ourselves, even though things are kind of crumbling right now," Nyjer Morgan said. "We've got to be true professionals here and show what we're made of by our character. ... It's snowballing, but we can't let that snowball get any bigger."
If the Nationals aren't careful, a once-promising season could look less-than-promising six weeks from now.
Since reaching their high-water mark of 20-15 way back on May 14, the Nats have gone 33-57, third-worst in the majors ahead of only the Orioles and Pirates. That's a .367 winning percentage, which roughly equates to 59 wins over a full season.
That's really bad.
Fortunately from the Nationals' perspective, that strong start helps mask the substandard three months since and will prevent them from finishing with a record that resembles those from 2008 and 2009. At 53-72, the Nats would have to go 9-28 down the stretch to reach 100 losses. Not impossible, but pretty unlikely.
Then again, the 72-win pace this club was on for most of the summer has since diminished. In order to finish 72-90, the Nats will need to go 19-18 the rest of the way. Minus Strasburg and Willingham, that doesn't sound too plausible.
The onus is now on Riggleman to keep his clubhouse together. Even during some rough stretches, the Nationals have played with effort all season. They've managed not to spiral into some of the long losing streaks (seven games, eight games, nine games) that plagued the last two versions of this team. But it could be tough to convince these guys to sustain the effort over the season's final 37 games. There's little left to play for. And if Strasburg doesn't return, that's one less reason for everyone to get excited every fifth day.
Riggleman, ever the optimist, points to his team's strong finish in 2009 -- the Nats closed it out on a seven-game winning streak -- as evidence of what can happen when players push hard through the finish line.
"You know, that's where we were last year," he said. "That's what happened last year, and we passed the test. We played hard all the way through. And that's what we're going to do this year. And if we don't, then we'll change things around to where we do."