At the start of the ninth inning Wednesday night, the number glowed on the scoreboard. Surrounded by zeroes on both sides, there stood the lonely number 1: the Washington Nationals' offensive output up to that point, courtesy of a solo home run by Laynce Nix in the fourth inning.
Another loss, it seemed, would be laid to rest on the shoulders of a Nationals offense that had scored just four runs in their previous 26 innings. But when the game was over, and another potentially dramatic comeback died when Nix's would-be game-tying homer sunk at the warning track, the blame for a 7-5 loss to the Florida Marlins had to be placed elsewhere.
"Starting pitching hasn't been what we want it to be," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said after he watched his team drop its fourth straight and eighth since the All-Star break.
Livan Hernandez, who worked without his best sinker, gave up four earned runs on five hits and three walks in four innings. He threw 87 pitches and was just the latest starting pitcher to struggle. For a starting staff that put together a 3.75 ERA in the first half of the season, the Nationals starters have compiled a 5.71 ERA since the break and have taxed a bullpen that has faltered as well.
"We've pitched good the whole year," Hernandez, who also allowed five hits and walked for, said. "It's difficult. When you're good the whole year and you pass this time and you're struggling a little bit, it's difficult. But we know we've got to come back and pitch better. ... It's frustrating right now. We're not winning ballgames. I didn't pitch good today, and I didn't give a chance to the team. Everybody's got to do their job and concentrate on winning one game at a time."
The Nationals exploded for five runs in the ninth inning, keyed by a leadoff triple by pinch-hitter Ian Desmond. With two outs, Jerry Hairston Jr. drove in Desmond with a single. Ryan Zimmermann stroked an RBI ground-rule double after Alex Cora walked and Michael Morse followed it up with a two-run single of his own.
But Nix's fly out to the warning track ended the rally and made the Nats look back at what could have been at the top of the ninth inning. Drew Storen, who had gone 10 consecutive outings without giving up a run, came in with the Nats trailing 5-1 and served up a two-run home run to Mike Cameron to put the Marlins ahead by five runs.
"Storen, he never gives up anything and he gave up the two-run homer," Johnson said, shaking his head about the fastball up and in that Cameron hit for his second home run of the night to keep the Nationals comeback just out of reach. "That was the difference."
The comments have been trickling out of the Nationals' clubhouse the past few games. The team has come out "flat" since the All-Star break. They're looking for a "spark." They needed something to change. Tuesday night, Johnson admitted he was getting close to his boiling point.
Looking to shake up an offense he described as "underachieving," Johnson subbed out four regulars from the lineup Wednesday. He benched Jayson Werth, Desmond, Roger Bernadina, and Wilson Ramos — along with their combined .225 batting average. He subbed in Cora, Hairston, Rick Ankiel and Jesus Flores, perhaps not so much for their own combined mark of .243 (owed mostly to Hairston's .268 average) but more for the possibility of infusing life into a sparkless offense.
But while those players sat on the bench, their replacements did their best impressions of the starters. For the second straight night, the only Nationals hitter to produce before the ninth was Nix. Zimmerman had two hard-hit singles, and he would've had a double if right fielder Mike Stanton hadn't made a leaping grab on a ball that would've hit high off the out-of-town scoreboard.
"I think it would have hit the wall if friggin' Randy Moss wasn't over there," Zimmerman said. "He might be one of the only guys in the league that catches that ball."
Four times Washington put two runners on base and all four times they failed to bring home a run. But the ninth-inning rally was "refreshing" to Johnson and "shows me it's there."
As the Nationals trudged into the clubhouse, the excitement of a comeback was quickly lost. Their offense may have awoken but it was too late. Their pitching woes had cropped up as a new issue. The blame for their fourth straight loss, it seemed, fell on both entities.
"[The pitchers] have been kind of the most consistent thing all year," Zimmerman said. "They've given us a chance to win every game. To go after them and attack them is ridiculous because they've been this team, pretty much.
"When we've been struggling, they've held their heads up the whole time. They'll get out of it — and we're going to start hitting the ball as well."
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