The Washington Times - May 10, 2012, 09:31AM

PITTSBURGH — Davey Johnson has been in the Nationals’ dugout for 112 games, 54 of them losses. After almost all 54, Johnson’s attitude remained unchanged. “I’m a positive person,” Johnson has said on countless occasions, preferring most often to take the blame for a loss on himself than put it on his players.

But Wednesday night, in the visiting manager’s office at PNC Park, Johnson appeared as frustrated as he’s been after a loss in his 10 1/2-month tenure. Johnson said the phrase “I don’t know,” five times in his three minutes with reporters and, at least figuratively, seemed to be pointing the media in the direction of the clubhouse to find answers.

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“We had many chances to win that ballgame,” he said. “We had pitches to hit and we swung through them… Tonight was especially frustrating. No doubt about it.”

Johnson preaches an aggressive approach at the plate, wanting the Nationals’ hitters to not feel as if they’ve got to take a pitch just for the sake of taking one and urging them to swing when they get a pitch they feel is in their zone. But the Nationals struck out swinging 11 times on Wednesday night and even when they did get runners on, they failed to get them in — or even make contact on several occasions.

“You’ve got to make contact,” Johnson said. “You can’t drive a run in without making contact. Sometimes we expand and chase balls early in the count and we just can’t do that. That’s not being a good hitter. We had so many chances. I thought, two or three times, just a little bloop here and we’ll win this ballgame. It’s just not coming.”

Johnson also used the word “disheartening” to describe all of the Nationals’ missed opportunities, a clear sign of how difficult this loss was for him to watch. But, of course, the next question has to be: How can the Nationals stop squandering those chances? How can they stop missing their pitch?

Hitting coach Rick Eckstein has a theory:

“You know yourself and you know where your eyes are looking in the zone,” Eckstein explained. “You know what balls you can handle and which ones you can’t. So you don’t want to look in a zone that you can’t really handle. You want to look in a zone that you can handle and you don’t miss it.

“You want to look where you want it. If you’re looking in places where you know it’s really not your strength, the ball goes into your strength zone and you’re not keyed into that area, the tendency is to miss it.”

Eckstein continued, asked if it’s surprising to see such a similar issue affecting a large portion of the lineup, and, without saying it, seemed to admit just how badly the Nationals are missing their full complement of hitters.

“The pressure builds because I believe in a lineup that’s best when each guy knows that the guy behind him can do the job. So then you can be patient and be a little more aggressive in your zones, not expanding. And if they want to walk you, pitch around you, whatever, the next guy picks up the load.

“At times, when that’s happened, we just haven’t taken advantage of the next guy picking up that load.”

Eckstein was quick to point out that there have indeed been other times when the Nationals’ hitters have come through. Their record isn’t 18-11 solely because of their pitching. There have been plenty of occasions when they have gotten the timely hit. They’re 9-6 in one-run games, a winning margin mostly because of the times they have come through. 

That was of little consolation Wednesday night as most of the Nationals’ players and coaches seethed in the immediate aftermath of a game they’d been given more than enough chances to win. The Pirates lost their starter on the first batter of the second inning with Erik Bedard going down with back spasms, but the Nationals never made their bullpen pay.

So that led to the next question: Will there be changes to the lineup for Thursday’s finale?

“I don’t know,” Johnson said. “I’m getting over this one before I think about tomorrow.”