Thoughts and observations from the Nationals' 3-2 loss to the Dodgers

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Here are a few thoughts and observations after the Dodgers edged the Nationals 3-2 at Nationals Park on Friday night:

Questions about the Nationals’ inconsistent offense remain sticker than, well, the sweat-drenched night in Washington where the heat index hovered around 100 degrees throughout the game. No sequence better encapsulated the season-long struggle than the fourth inning when the Nationals loaded the bases with none out, but couldn’t score. In the first game since the All-Star break, the inning-long tease reminded of the problems that kept the team hovering around .500 in the season’s first half.

Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper singled off Dodgers starter Ricky Nolasco, then Jayson Werth walked. The right-hander looked to be in serious trouble. Then Ian Desmond bounced into a fielder’s choice. That brought up Chad Tracy, filling in for the flu-ridden Adam LaRoche. What happened wasn’t pretty.

Swinging at the first pitch, Tracy sent a weak pop up into left field. Limp-armed Carl Crawford caught the ball and sent an off-line throw in the general direction of home plate. There wouldn’t have been a play at the plate, but Bryce Harper, on third base, didn’t try to tag up and score.

That left Wilson Ramos. But the catcher bounced a soft ground ball back to Nolasco and the threat whimpered out. A strong and unusual chorus of boos followed. The frustration over an offense that looks good on paper, but hasn’t been able to find a rhythm in reality was too much to hide.

Aside from LaRoche, the offense is finally healthy and has shown, at times, the ability to plate runs as well as any team in the majors. The group, however, can just as easily disappear. Drawing broad meaning from one inning is a dangerous thing, but the troublesome fourth represented the potential — and problem — the Nationals face.

There aren’t easy answers. The bench has struggled. The regulars need to produce. Whether those things can come together in time to make a run at the fast-fading National League East pennant in the coming weeks is an open question.

After the game, Harper dodged the usual cliches about coming back tomorrow for a minute.

“Well,” he said of the inning, “you know it sucks. It’s a huge situation and we didn’t capitalize.”

***

Speaking of offense, Dodgers rookie sensation Yasiel Puig went hitless and struck out twice. But the 22-year-old Cuban defector still left the ballpark buzzing. Instead of his bat, which ripped eight home runs in 39 games, his equally powerful right arm grabbed attention.

The play you’ll see over and over again on television highlights didn’t even record an out. As Harper barreled toward third after Jayson Werth’s fly ball to right, Puig came up throwing. He didn’t bother with the cutoff man, instead rocketing the ball to third baseman Juan Uribe with uncanny accuracy.

Uribe appeared to tag Harper’s foot before touching the bag — he admitted as much postgame — but umpire Eric Cooper called him safe.

Count that as a lesson learned for Harper, whose speed and fearlessness on the basepaths has never been in question.

“He’s got an absolute cannon,” he said. “It’s something I’ll learn from the next time not to make it so close.”

Puig added another jaw-dropping defensive play in the fifth. Running full speed, he snagged Anthony Rendon’s pop fly in foul territory in the right field corner an instant before crashing into the wall. There’s probably a Puig-sized dent in the wall’s green covering.

***

Closer Rafael Soriano is the low-key sort. That attitude extended to his one-pitch mistake in the ninth inning, when Andre Ethier smacked a solo home run to break open a tie game.

“There was nothing I could do,” he said.

Other than the result, there wasn’t much he’d change.

“No, no, I throw a lot of pitches away,” he said. “I tried to go down. … I think I make my pitch.”

That’s the sort of shrug-it-off approach a closer needs. There’s too much pressure, too much at stake to live and die on each pitch, even the ones that don’t land where you want them to.

***

After a forgettable two-inning outing in Miami before the All-Star break, Stephen Strasburg rebounded with a solid seven-inning start. Nights this humid can be difficult to pitch on, particularly to grip the baseball and snap off pitches with the same crispness as less swamp-like nights.

But Strasburg wouldn’t make excuses. He wasn’t unhittable, but, perhaps most impressively, found ways to escape jams generated by seven hits with minimum damage. He looked calm, composed and in control on a night where something else would’ve been understandable.

The biggest difference from the Miami debacle? More first-pitch strikes and, as well, the ability to effectively use all his pitches. That included his changeup.

“I started to get a better feel for my changeup, which I haven’t had for a while now,” Strasburg said.

One of those changeups dove toward the dirt to strike out Crawford swinging in the third, one of Strasburg’s six strikeouts.

All told, an encouraging step forward for Strasburg.

***

If LaRoche’s flu ebbs enough to allow his return to the lineup Saturday, expect Harper to return to the leadoff spot and Denard Span to hit seventh. Is that enough to ignite the offense? No one knows.

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