It has become something of a given: The Washington Nationals are going to get a quality pitching performance most nights.
With only a few exceptions, that has held true for the last three months for a club that has pitched far better than expected.
The Nationals' success, then, has been predicated upon their ability (or inability) to produce at the plate. Manager Manny Acta's offense surely has made strides over the course of the season. But every so often, such as during last night's 4-2 loss to Philadelphia at RFK Stadium, it falls back into the rut that made it at one time the least-productive lineup in baseball.
And when that happens — especially when the Nationals run themselves into outs at crucial moments and waste other golden opportunities — not even the best pitching performance is good enough to produce a victory.
So it was last night at RFK before a crowd of 27,308, where a strong effort from right-hander Joel Hanrahan went for naught because the Nationals could not mount any semblance of offense against Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels. By the time Washington finally got to Philadelphia's suspect bullpen, it was too late.
"It's a nine-inning ballgame," Acta said. "I thought earlier in the game, we had a chance on Hamels when he couldn't command his fastball. But that's why he's so good."
There's no shame in losing to Hamels. The 23-year-old is thriving in his first full season in the big leagues, making a case for Cy Young Award consideration with a 14-5 record and an assortment of pitches that has resulted in nearly one strikeout for every inning he has logged.
But Washington didn't help its cause against Hamels last night, failing to take advantage of some good hitters' counts and failing to score during his 62/3 innings.
"We kept him out there too long," Acta said. "We gave him the opportunity to recuperate."
The Nationals finally drove Hamels from the game in the seventh, mounting a potential rally. Reliever Antonio Alfonseca walked pinch-hitter Tony Batista to load the bases with two outs but rebounded to strikeout out Felipe Lopez on a 2-2 fastball and quash the scoring chance.
Still trailing 4-0 in the eighth, Washington at last put something on the scoreboard, with Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young each launching solo homers off Tom Gordon to cut the lead in half. The Nationals then managed to put the tying runs on base with one out, only to squander the opportunity when Jesus Flores lined out to right and Austin Kearns got caught too far off second base and was doubled up to end the inning.
Kearns, praised by Acta the night before for his hustle in breaking up a double play, slipped trying to reverse course and was forced to leave the game with cramping in his right hamstring.
"I went about halfway and took a look and saw he was going to catch it," said Kearns, who doesn't believe the injury is serious. "I went to go back, but when I planted, my left foot kind of gave out. So I was trying to get back to get on my push-off [leg], and that's when it happened."
The lack of offense negated a solid start by Hanrahan, one of the most pleasant surprises among the young pitchers thrust into the Nationals' rotation this summer. The right-hander, who spent seven years in the Dodgers' organization without getting a sniff of the major leagues, has dazzled the Washington brass with his "stuff" since getting called up three weeks ago.
Once again flashing a 95 mph fastball and a hard slider, Hanrahan blew away several Phillies hitters, leading to a career-high eight strikeouts (including Ryan Howard, the reigning NL MVP, three times).
But Hanrahan is only as effective as his command of his impressive stuff, and his inability to harness it throughout his entire outing last night cost him a shot at pitching deep into the game.
Hanrahan (2-1) issued four walks in five innings, including a costly one to Jayson Werth with one out in the second. Carlos Ruiz followed with a two-run blast to left-center that would have been a solo homer if not for the preceding at-bat.
Those were the only runs Philadelphia got off the hurler, but his location troubles ratcheted up his pitch count to the point where he couldn't go beyond the fifth inning. With his pitch count already at 101 (only 51 of them strikes), Hanrahan was pulled for a pinch-hitter.
"I just need to get quicker outs," he said. "I'd say that's the biggest thing that's held me back. If you look at the last couple of years, I've had a lot of walks. I think that's one of the things I've got to work on."