For the Nationals to be playing a game without third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was nothing new. After all, by the time Washington took the field Saturday afternoon, Zimmerman had already missed their previous 17 games.
But shortly after the Nationals announced Saturday that they'd be without their All-Star third baseman for at least six more weeks as he undergoes surgery for a torn rectus muscle in his abdomen, they also displayed just how much Zimmerman's absence will continue to hurt their already anemic offense in a 2-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants.
With Giants' starter Jonathan Sanchez lacking any semblance of control early, eight of the Nationals' first 10 batters reached base — and only one via a hit. By the end of the game, the Giants pitchers had walked nine Washington batters and hit three more but the Nationals left 12 men on base and were 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
They became the first team in the live-ball era to walk nine times, get hit three times and score less than two runs — and perhaps reached a new low in offensive ineptitude for the 2011 season with just two of their starters hitting .239 or higher and only one, catcher Wilson Ramos, hitting above .300 (.358).
"We're going to get it going," said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman after his team dropped two 12-14 on the season. "I'm real proud of this ballclub the way they compete and the way they agonize after a tough loss like that. There are a lot of irritated people in that clubhouse right now that we didn't win that ballgame and that's the way it's supposed to be."
The question facing the Nationals now is simply when that will happen. They were given a prime opportunity on Saturday and they failed to take advantage. They had a pitcher, who was giving them every chance to break the game open, on the ropes early and instead left starter John Lannan with little margin for error — a predicament that came back to haunt them when Lannan forced in the winning run with a walk to pinch-hitter Aubrey Huff in the seventh inning.
"I don't think there's any question when you're not scoring runs and leaving guys out there it starts to weigh on you as a team," said first baseman Adam LaRoche who was 0-for-4 to drop his average on the season to .193 and twice made outs with the bases loaded — including a strikeout to end the game.
"The harder you try in this game, the harder it is, I'm convinced," he added. "You go out there and start thinking about a ton of different things and different situations and it doesn't make it any easier. That's the million dollar question: What do we do to get out of it? You've got to relax, you've got to get some breaks and all of a sudden it starts falling your way."
They seemed to be getting those breaks Saturday but squandered them away all but one time. In the first inning, after a leadoff walk and a double play had given him two quick outs, Sanchez proceeded to walk the next three batters and the Nationals looked sure to capitalize but Michael Morse swung at a first-pitch fastball that he grounded to third to end the inning.
In the second inning, after Ian Desmond had come home with what at the time seemed sure to be the first of many runs, both Jayson Werth (strikeout) and LaRoche (groundout) failed with the bases loaded. The same thing happened with two outs in the ninth, though Werth walked before LaRoche struck out to end it.
In not capitalizing when they had the chance, the Nationals not only allowed Sanchez to hang around through five full innings but they squandered a strong performance by Lannan when Riggleman decided to intentionally walk Eli Whiteside — whose solo home run was the Giants only offense — in the seventh to load the bases instead of bringing in right-hander Tyler Clippard to face him.
"Every now and then you make a decision for your starting pitcher," Riggleman said. "If I pull John there, he's got a no-decision or a loss. If I let him try to work through it, he's got a no-decision or a win. It didn't work. The right decision was to just bring Clippard in and that's the end of that. I should have done that and that's one that's on me."
Lannan (2-3) allowed two earned runs off six hits and three walks in 6 2/3 innings of work. On most days, a performance like that sees a pitcher leave with a win. On Saturday, it was just another wasted opportunity.
"I pitched too well to kind of let the game be decided on that walk," Lannan said. "It's a tough one."
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