LOS ANGELES — The scene to remember from the Washington Nationals’ 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night featured Dan Haren. The veteran right-hander walked off the mound following the seventh inning and was greeted by a swarm of congratulations in the Nationals’ dugout.
It’d been almost an hour since Haren had put a runner on base, a span of 13 consecutive batters, and not even a cleat-catching injury scare could derail him as he held the Dodgers to just four hits.
But because of Clayton Kershaw, because of the supremely talented left-hander sharing the mound with him, the high-fives and back slaps were all Haren and the Nationals were able to get out of the night.
“(Kershaw’s) an unbelievable pitcher,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who said he’d been waiting since last year to face him again, and joined Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche as the only Nationals with hits.
“He’s the best in the game, in my opinion. To our credit, I think Dan Haren went pitch for pitch with him the whole way.”
The hope manager Davey Johnson had when he wrote out his lineup on Tuesday afternoon was that change may bode well. Bryce Harper was unavailable after his collision with the right field wall on Monday. Jayson Werth is out until at least Saturday. Johnson gave lefty leadoff man Denard Span a night off.
He slotted Steve Lombardozzi, a natural second baseman into left field, Tyler Moore, a natural first baseman into right and rookie Eury Perez at center to make his first major league start. The man who recalled subbing out Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro when the Orioles would face Randy Johnson figured, why not?
Kershaw had no sympathy for him.
Still pumping 93-mph fastballs by the Nationals’ hitters in the ninth, and dropping in his devastating curveball, Kershaw was superb. He threw 132 pitches over 8 2/3 innings, struck out 11 and only departed after a 10-pitch, two-out at-bat by Adam LaRoche in the ninth inning ended with a single.
“He had his (stuff) tonight,” said second baseman Danny Espinosa, who got the chance to hit leadoff as a right-hander, and was 0-for-4 with three swinging strikeouts. “What are you going to do? The guy’s got a 1.40 ERA and strikes out about 10 every single game he pitches. He didn’t make many mistakes. Not many; He didn’t make any mistakes over the middle. Everything was corner to corner.”
The Nationals loaded the bases on the lefty with two outs in the first inning with Zimmerman, Desmond and LaRoche reaching. But Tyler Moore struck out. When the game was on the line in the ninth and LaRoche stood on second, Moore struck out again.
“There’s a few guys on the ballclub who are not doing the things they’re capable of doing,” Johnson said. “They’ve been struggling off and on all year and we just need to right the ship. I know it’s been an issue. There’s progress. The middle of my lineup’s doing a lot of good things. But some of the other guys are not doing the things they’re capable of doing.”
The stats are sobering. The Nationals will enter their 40th game of the 2013 season on Wednesday with one of the worst-hitting teams in all of the major leagues. Their average languishes in the bottom five. Their on-base percentage is in the bottom three. Only the Mariners, Dodgers, White Sox and Marlins have scored fewer runs than them.
Desmond, hitting .293, was the only member of the somewhat depleted starting lineup who entered Tuesday’s game with an average above .250. By night’s end, with three hits off Kershaw, Zimmerman joined him at .270.
They out-hit the Dodgers, five to L.A.’s four, but it mattered not.
“When you go up against a guy with a little bit of an unconventional delivery with plus pitches, if you’re not feeling really good, he’s got a chance to embarrass you,” LaRoche said. “Danny threw awesome, we just didn’t have a ton of opportunities. That’s what the good pitchers do and (Kershaw) was on tonight.”
It magnified everything Haren did as he put together his fifth consecutive solid outing. And when his fourth pitch to Kershaw to open the third inning hit the lefty on the foot, he knew he was living dangerously.
Johnson opted not to intentionally walk Andre Ethier with two on and two out in the frame, despite his over-.400 career average against the Nationals’ right-hander, wanting not to force his veteran righty into a situation where he had to throw a strike to the next batter. Haren tried to pitch carefully to Ethier. His mistake was a splitter that stayed out over the plate. Ethier hit it off the mound and up the middle. Two runs scored.
The game, essentially, was decided.
“Going against a guy like Kershaw, you have to be perfect,” Haren said. “And I wasn’t perfect. I made a few mistakes.
“I try not to get caught up on who my opposition is on the mound, because baseball’s a crazy game. You never know. We could’ve easily got five or six off him in the first couple innings. We had bases-loaded there early. You never know. But I knew who I was facing and I knew I had to be really good. And I was, except for just a few pitches.”
The rest of his teammates, admittedly disappointed to have allowed his fine performance go for naught, were left to turn the page. Johnson himself didn’t seem to have too many answers.
“Take it day-by-day,” he said. “I have a lot of confidence in the ability of these guys who are struggling.”