Chad Tracy dropped his head and began to remove his batting gloves. Anthony Rendon, his neck craned toward the path of Tracy’s fly ball in left field, stopped trotting home from third base and set his course straight for the dugout. On the bench, several Washington Nationals stared into the abyss as their 3-2 loss went final.
Mere feet from them, Atlanta Braves right-hander Jordan Walden smacked his glove and shouted in happiness. Another win secured for the Braves. Another push to widen the ever-growing divide between first place and second in the National League East, now at 13.5 games.
Their converse emotions transpired on parallel planes.
While the Braves smiled and celebrated a game in which a bunch of little things going right added up to an important divisional victory, the Nationals wondered how many times little things going wrong would doom them.
The opposite trajectories of the division rivals couldn’t have been more perfectly encapsulated into one moment.
“I mean, that’s baseball,” said a downtrodden Davey Johnson. “But boy, we needed that one.”
They didn’t get it. The Braves winning streak reached 11 and the Nationals went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position. They put the leadoff batter on in seven of nine innings and scored him only once. They scalded pitches from Mike Minor and David Carpenter, right into the gloves of waiting fielders.
For the 10th time this season Stephen Strasburg threw at least seven innings and allowed two earned runs or fewer. In half of those starts, Strasburg has received a no-decision or a loss. Monday night it was the former.
In the meantime, the Braves scored their first run after two hits on balls that didn’t leave the infield. Their backbreaker came when the Nationals’ most infallible reliever, Tyler Clippard, hung a 3-2 changeup that Justin Upton promptly deposited in the left field seats in the eighth inning — one large blow to put a bow on all of the smaller ones they’d struck leading up to it.
Here is a brief rundown of some of their mistakes and misfortune:
– When Johnson talked on Saturday about possibly giving Jayson Werth Sunday off, he specifically mentioned the importance of having Werth in the lineup to face Braves lefty Mike Minor. He needed his right-handed presence.
But when Werth was unable to go, a scratch due to a sore groin, he was replaced in the lineup by Steve Lombardozzi, a switch hitter who, in his career, is far better against right-handed pitchers than left. He batted ahead of Scott Hairston — a right-handed bench bat in the lineup specifically to face the left-handed Minor.
Lombardozzi was 0-for-3 and ground into two double plays. Hairston was 2-for-3 with a walk.
– No one could accuse Strasburg of being the reason the Nationals lost, his performance that featured nine strikeouts coinciding with the 51st time in 112 games the Nationals scored two runs or fewer — a seemingly unbelievable 45.5 percent of their games.
But, forgiving for a moment that the winning run scored on a homer, the game truly turned in an instant in which Strasburg stood on the mound with the ball in his hands.
A struggle to hold baserunners has plagued the Nationals’ ace for the better part of the last two years. He’s quick to the plate with his delivery, but he is too maniacally repetitive. His movements vary so little. He has allowed 12 stolen bases this season. He gave up 14 in 2012.
“I mean, we’ve worked with him and worked with him,” Johnson said. “(He’s) too regular. He has the same pattern every time. He’s very quick to the plate, but he is locked in his ways. We throw over there more than we want to because of that, and he doesn’t even wait to do that. It’s always right from the get-go. That’s still a work in progress.”
Justin Upton was halfway to second base by the time his pitch to Freddie Freeman in the fifth inning left his hand.
Freeman’s RBI-single moments later gave the Braves a 2-1 lead.
“It happens,” said Strasburg. “I got caught in having a predictable time to home plate. (Freeman) took a gamble, 3-0 hacking, hit one up the middle. It is what it is.”
– The Nationals scalded at least three hard line drives with runners on base and their frustration grew each time they came up empty. They also wasted opportunities in almost every inning.
Hairston narrowly missed a line drive home run to left field, settling for a double, in a tie game in the seventh inning and Werth, feeling well enough to pinch hit, strode to the plate. Fredi Gonzalez signaled for right-hander David Carpenter. But with closer Craig Kimbrel unavailable, there was no lefty warming behind him for Bryce Harper due up behind Werth.
The opportunity seemed perfectly primed. If Werth, the NL Player of the Month for July, couldn’t come through, Harper would get a chance against a righty, and Ian Desmond behind him. Werth struck out on a foul tip on a nasty 3-2, 97-mph fastball. Harper smoked a line drive out to right. Desmond ground out meekly.
“Sometimes you have really good at-bats and it doesn’t work out in your favor,” Hairston said. “That’s just the game of baseball. Usually it’s rare in sports. When you do everything you can, you should be rewarded for it. Not in this game.”
– Then there was the ninth, in which the Nationals watched Rendon reach on a base hit that Dan Uggla couldn’t handle at second base, sacrificed him to second, watched a wild pitch move him to third, and then left him there.
But was it a sacrifice bunt that Denard Span dropped down?
“It was a bunt for a base hit and he just decided to sacrifice,” Johnson said. “I would’ve rather seen him try to bunt and get on. That’s something he hasn’t done a lot of. But I didn’t want a straight sacrifice.”
“It was one of those things where, when he gave (the bunt for a hit sign) to me, it was kind of tough, because you know it’s a bunt situation and both sides are crashing,” Span said. “In hindsight, I’m like, ‘Why would he give me the base-hit bunt?’ It’s not surprising anybody.
“Only thing I can think of is a base-hit bunt, you show a little later. Sac bunt, you show earlier, so they’re coming in a lot sooner. That’s the only logic I could get out of it. I wasn’t expecting to get a hit, because they already were way in on the grass. But it worked out.”
It worked out until it didn’t. Until Hairston, who had the best night of any Nationals player at the plate, offered at a 2-0 fastball from Walden and popped it up behind home plate and was left to stew over the one time he didn’t produce. Tracy’s fly out quickly followed.
“I had a chance to do my job tonight with one out and I didn’t do it,” he said. “It’s just how it goes sometimes. Hopefully the next time I’m in that situation, I’ll be able to get the job done.
“I think when you’re in that position to help the team win and you don’t do it, it’s somewhat of a disappointment and we all feel the same way. You have to seize the opportunity.”
In the quiet of yet another losing clubhouse, the Nationals tried to pick up the pieces of another game gone awry and move forward without dwelling too long on opportunities missed.
“It doesn’t really matter if you hit it hard or soft,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who made multiple dazzling defensive plays. “No one cares about that. You care about what the score is and they scored more than we did.”
They are more than a bakers’ dozen out of first place in their division and seven back in the Wild Card. Their little mistakes adding up to a big deficit.
“Morale’s never really good after you lose,” Johnson said. “It’s always great when you do things you’re capable of and you win. That’s why you try so hard to win.”