In the first quarter of the Washington Nationals' 2009 season, when just about everything else showed a defect, it was an awakened offense that kept the Nationals from careening from mediocrity into complete dilapidation.
Bolstered by the offseason acquisition of Adam Dunn, the production of a healthy Nick Johnson in the No. 2 hole and the growth of Ryan Zimmerman, the group turned almost immediately into one of the National League's best offenses. It stormed its way back into games the Nationals appeared to have lost with their bullpen, defense or a wayward starting pitcher.
Now, however, when Washington is getting good enough starting pitching from its cast of neophytes, playing somewhat respectable defense and even getting a little help from its historically bad bullpen, it's losing games because it can't score runs.
Saturday night's 2-1 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, the Nationals' ninth defeat in 10 games, played out almost like the yin to Washington's typical yang of defeat. Center fielder Justin Maxwell made a jaw-dropping catch to take away a homer in the first inning. Ross Detwiler fought control problems for a quality start, and apart from a mistake or two, the Nationals were respectable in the field and in relief.
Instead, it was the offense that couldn't deliver. Washington scored one run on seven hits, a night after losing 4-2.
A Cristian Guzman homer was the Nationals' only extra-base hit. Right fielder Austin Kearns personally left six runners on base. And with Washington down by a run in the ninth, three straight hitters struck out against Baltimore closer George Sherrill.
For a team that still wins games only when the stars align and everything clicks, the offensive drought was too much to handle.
Making his second major league start, Detwiler was perfect for the first two innings, if only because of a sensational catch from Maxwell in the first inning.
Maxwell retreated to the center field wall on Adam Jones' long fly ball, and just as it appeared he'd run out of room, the University of Maryland product leapt and snatched the ball back from over the fence. It was a catch that perhaps no other player the Nationals have tried in center field this year could have made, and it provided a glimpse of why Washington's front office hopes Maxwell will one day anchor the position.
Still, Detwiler had heaps of trouble locating his fastball, and appeared headed for an early exit after walking the bases loaded in the third inning. It was that series of mistakes that cost him a run when Nick Markakis got the Orioles' only hit off Detwiler in bizarre fashion.
With the bases loaded, Markakis hit a grounder to short that Ryan Zimmerman fielded as he sliced in front of Guzman. But Willie Harris had deserted his post at second base, running toward first, and Zimmerman had no play there. By the time he tried firing to first, he was too late, and the Orioles had scored their first run.
As much as the ability to control his fastball deserted him in the first few innings, it was that pitch that sustained Detwiler through the sixth inning. He started throwing it for a strike on the outer half of the plate with some regularity against right-handers, retiring 10 of the last 11 batters he faced and giving up just one hit.
He left with a no-decision after Guzman swatted a Brian Bass fastball into the Nationals' bullpen in the fifth inning,
But Julian Tavarez gave up a double with one out in the seventh, which appeared harmless when Gregg Zaun made the mistake of trying to advance to third on a grounder right in front of him. Guzman fielded the ball and threw to Zimmerman, who tagged Zaun out easily.
The batter who hit the grounder, Cesar Izturis, was little more than an afterthought when the Nationals threw out the lead runner. He ended up scoring the run the decided the game.
When pinch hitter Aubrey Huff popped a double off the top of the bullpen wall in left center, missing a two-run homer by inches, Izturis scored from first to give the Orioles a 2-1 lead.
In the hands of the Nationals' suddenly impotent offense, that was all Baltimore would need.