Davey Johnson’s eyes were red, his face long. The Washington Nationals’ season, a sparse collection of highlights interspersed with disappointing losses and too many evenings spent lamenting mistakes or opportunities missed, had reached a new low point.
A 6-5 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates left his team three games under .500 for the first time since 2011. They are eight games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East. An inconsistent and often ineffective offense cost his hitting coach his job, a decision so difficult for Johnson to digest he was visibly upset and talked openly about his disagreement with general manager Mike Rizzo over it.
A few minutes earlier, Nationals Park had pulsed with a familiar energy. Jayson Werth had homered — his second of the game, and second straight multi-homer day — and brought what was left of the 29,200 in attendance back to life. The Nationals, who’d stared at a five-run deficit at one point, pulled within a run and would’ve been tied were it not for a confounding misstep by their bullpen the inning before.
But the rally died, even as Pirates’ All-Star closer Jason Grilli exited with forearm discomfort. The game ended. They lost for the ninth time in their last 11 games.
“This is a bad day for me,” Johnson said, sullenly. “I’m glad it’s over with.”
The Nationals relieved hitting coach Rick Eckstein of his duties on Monday morning, and after the tumult that came with that decision Johnson figured the game would be the easy part of the day for him.
But Dan Haren left two fastballs up to Andrew McCutchen in the first three innings and despite those being the only two hits he allowed to that point, the Nationals were down four runs before their lineup had been able to turn over even once. Another run came home in the fourth after the Pirates opened the frame with back-to-back hits.
“I felt good, made mistakes up in the zone and that’s kind of been the story of the year for me: Every mistake I’ve made, I’ve paid the price for it,” Haren said. “If I could take those two pitches back, things would be a lot different, but the fact of the matter is, I can’t.
“Obviously the mood in the clubhouse right now isn’t really good… it was a tough day for the organization.”
The Nationals’ offensive comeback, mounted on the back of Werth’s home runs and a solo shot from Adam LaRoche, gave them a glimmer of hope that perhaps the day could end better than it began. They grasped at the feeling.
“Me and (shortstop Ian Desmond) were talking about it during the game, we kind of felt like the tide was turning a little bit,” Werth said. “Really, that’s the first time we’ve had something going in a while so, yeah, that was a good feeling. Hopefully we can get the job done next time and build on that.”
“There’s great character on this ballclub,” Johnson said. “I’ve said it 100 times. I felt a lot of energy tonight, as I do a lot of nights. When you swing the bats good, you pitch good, that’s what sets the ball rolling. It’s called momentum. We just are fighting to get a little momentum.”
Their struggle gets compounded when they do seem to work toward a shift, but they get set back. Their pitching staff stabilized on Monday night, holding the Pirates scoreless for three innings. Their offense began to solve Pirates righty Charlie Morton. They made a five-run game a two-run one.
And then Ian Krol put the first two batters of the eighth inning on base. Then Johnson summoned Drew Storen with one out and runners on second and third to get the rookie left-hander — who has been largely superb to date — out of the jam against Gaby Sanchez.
Then Storen, struggling to grip the ball, uncorked his second wild fastball of the inning to Clint Barmes and Pedro Alvarez slid in safely as the right-hander dropped Wilson Ramos’ throw home. Storen slammed his glove to the dirt as he saw the ball cut out of his glove.
When Denard Span stood on second base, the tying run that would stay just too far away, it was another mistake left to lament.
“We have to play nine innings,” Ramos said. “We have to score more runs… But if we don’t (play) good defense, we can lose the game, too. (Storen) can get that out. He has to make good pitches. That’s what he was trying to do.”
“That’s the way it is at this level,” Storen said. “These games, there’s not a lot of margin for error. That’s what happens when you make a mistake. People make you pay for it. It’s time for us to make other people start paying for their mistakes.”