ATLANTA — Standing in a small hallway outside of the visitors’ clubhouse at Turner Field, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson looked weary and beleaguered. Five games into a 19-game season series with the Atlanta Braves, his team’s chief divisional rival, the Nationals hadn’t won a single one.
Their latest loss, an 8-1 thrashing at the hands of Tim Hudson and an Atlanta offense that brutalized his pitchers yet again, left Johnson without many answers.
“Do we have to talk about this one?” The 70-year-old manager asked as the lights of the cameras came on and the microphones inched toward his face.
It may have been best not to.
As the Nationals closed an inconsistent first month of the season at 13-14, they suffered their first losing month since Aug. 2011. And there was a lot of hope in the idea that in a few hours the calendar would turn a page to May and they could put the past few weeks behind them while looking forward to five more months of better baseball.
For one final April evening, though, it was of little solace.
The Nationals were behind almost from the start with Gio Gonzalez serving up a leadoff home run to Andrelton Simmons. Five walks, nine strikeouts, seven well-struck balls and five runs later — in just four innings of work — Gonzalez was done. With an offense that mustered only three hits, essentially, so were the Nationals.
“Today’s one of those things you just can’t explain,” Gonzalez said. “You either attack the strike zone or you don’t. You get nine on strikeouts and then five walks… They see the ball pretty good, and then all of a sudden they’re swinging and missing.
“If you can find the answer, I’d be more than happy to listen. Because I would love to find it right now myself.”
It was a night, though, in which Gonzalez was only one issue.
If you wanted to, you could have your pick of a signature moment of futility.
Maybe it was when Hudson, en route to his 200th career victory, crushed a ball to right field. Bryce Harper leapt at the wall, watched the ball bounce into his glove — crashed into that wall to give himself a nasty mark all down his left side — and felt the ball pop out and into the stands.
There was Ian Desmond, one of the few Nationals’ batters to reach base, hitting a triple into the right field corner to leadoff the seventh inning, and then standing on third base through three quick, useless outs.
Zach Duke retiring the first two batters he faced in relief of Gonzalez in the fifth, and then suffering through four hits (including Hudson’s homer) and an intentional walk to expand the Braves lead by three more runs.
The list could go on.
So what is missing? Why can’t the Nationals seem to play the type of clean, consistent, successful baseball they made their staple in 2012?
“I feel like we can, we’re just not,” said Desmond, who made his way around the clubhouse post-game quietly talking to almost every player. “Everyone’s trying to do better for the team, but I feel like you have to put yourself aside and start playing for the team. You know what I mean?
“We’ve got to throw the ball over the plate, we’ve got to hit strikes and we’ve got to field the ball. That’s what it boils down to. It’s not about what your numbers are in April, it’s not about what the record is in April. But at some point, you’ve got to jell as a team and start playing as a team.”
The Nationals are a team littered with talent. They are well aware of how good they can be, and they’re well aware that they have rarely played to that level in their first 27 games of the season. Not beating the Braves is an issue, but it’s hardly their only one.
“I don’t think it’s trying to do too much,” Desmond said. “I think it’s trying to do your best. (But) sometimes good is just good enough. If everyone is just good, we’re a really good ballclub. Everyone at their best, we’re an excellent ballclub. But not everyone’s gonna be at their best every day. You have to be good more than you’re bad — and excellent sometimes.”
“I’m not happy with being 13-13, no,” general manager Mike Rizzo said early on Tuesday, before his team dropped below that .500 mark. “But I see where we’re at and I see the improvement we can make, and that we will make. I’m confident this group is going to be a really good ballclub at the end of the day.”
Wednesday will feature a few more changes.
As third baseman Ryan Zimmerman begins a rehab assignment for his left hamstring in Potomac, weather permitting, the Nationals will see a handful of alterations in his absence and anticipate his hopeful activation on Friday.
They’ll send Jordan Zimmermann to the mound and expect the same type of dominating performance he’s repeated several times already this season. They need it.
In the meantime, they’ll mix it up and hope what comes out is what they’ve been searching for the past few weeks.
“We’ll try some different guys,” Johnson said back in that small hallway as his team quietly digested another loss. “That’s all we can do.”