Associated Press photo
Ian Desmond slams his bat in frustration after popping out in the sixth.
It's an unusual situation, to say the least, and on Sunday it cost the Nationals a very winnable game against the Braves. Despite the continued success of rookies Steve Lombardozzi and Bryce Harper, the rest of the lineup could do nothing against Tommy Hanson or two Atlanta relievers during a 3-2 loss that dropped the Nats into a first-place tie in the NL East with the Marlins.
"Pretty disheartening," Adam LaRoche said, "the fact we started it up 2-0 in the blink of an eye and couldn't get anything else out of it."
Indeed, many among the crowd of 38,046 had yet to settle into their seats when Lombardozzi and Harper made history by launching home runs on consecutive pitches in the bottom of the first, giving the Nationals an early advantage.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, they are the first rookies in the modern era (since 1900) to hit back-to-back homers to begin a major-league game.
Most everyone in the Nationals dugout was busy congratulating Lombardozzi on the first home run of his career -- after briefly giving him the silent treatment -- when Harper stepped to the plate and drilled Hanson's next pitch into the second deck down the right-field line for his fifth career home run.
"They were kind of messing with me when I walked in the dugout," said Lombardozzi, now hitting .309 with a .372 on-base percentage. "And then once they did get up and high-five me, everybody started yelling and then realized he just went yard. It was pretty cool."
With Gio Gonzalez on the mound in search of his team-leading eighth win, those two early bombs might normally have been enough. In five of 10 previous starts this season, the left-hander allowed fewer than two runs.
But Gonzalez looked out of sorts from the moment he took the mound, and he never found his groove. Unable to keep his fastball over the plate, he put at least one man on base in each of the first four innings and then fell apart in the fifth.
Gonzalez was slow to cover first base on a grounder to the right side. He issued two walks. He uncorked two wild pitches. And though he came within one strike of pitching his way out of the jam, he ultimately was burned by Jason Heyward's bases-loaded, soft single to left, which brought in the tying and go-ahead runs.
Thus, Johnson emerged from the dugout with a surprisingly early hook for the just-named NL Pitcher of the Month. Gonzalez had failed to complete the fifth inning only once before this season (in his April 7 debut in Chicago).
"If I would have attacked the strike zone, it would have been a different situation," Gonzalez said. "But apparently I was a little up and a little out of the zone. Good hitters, good eyes. They made me pay for it."
Even so, the Nationals' bullpen kept the deficit at one run the rest of the afternoon and gave the lineup ample opportunities to push across another run or two. Those runs never materialized, though, in large part because of the inability of the Nationals' most-accomplished hitters to produce in key situations.
Johnson's 3-through-6 hitters in this game (Ryan Zimmerman, LaRoche, Michael Morse and Ian Desmond) went a combined 0-for-16 with five strikeouts.
The club isn't all that concerned about LaRoche, who was among the league's most-productive hitters for six weeks until falling into his recent slide, or Morse, who will need some time to find his swing after missing the season's first two months.
The disturbing one among the group is Zimmerman, who has yet to find a level of consistency since returning from a shoulder injury one month ago. In 38 total games now, the 27-year-old third baseman is batting .233 with a paltry .333 slugging percentage.
To put that into context: The slap-hitting Lombardozzi boasts a slugging percentage 67 points higher than the club's $100 million No. 3 hitter, who insists the problem isn't his shoulder.
"I just stink right now," Zimmerman said. "It's frustrating. It's frustrating. Shoulder is fine. Everything is good. ... It's definitely not what I wanted to do to start this season [but] I can't do anything about it now. Just gotta keep working hard and continue to grind it out."
The stage was set for Zimmerman to snap out of his funk and deliver one of his biggest hits of the year when Lombardozzi and Harper each drew walks to open the bottom of the eighth. But after battling back from an 0-2 count against Braves left-hander Eric O'Flaherty, Zimmerman rapped a groundball to second, a tailor-made, 4-6-3 double play that killed the rally.
LaRoche followed with a flyout to the warning track in left, ending the inning altogether.
And when Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel struck out the side in the ninth, a very winnable game was officially a 3-2 loss for a club that is facing some serious questions about the lack of production it's getting from its most experienced hitters.
"I don't think we need to sweat the middle of that lineup," LaRoche said. "I know it needs to happen now, but I think if we continue to stay patient, there's some pretty good hitters in there that are going to figure it out. But it would be nice to be doing it all at once and see what we could really do."