The persistent thumping from the Miller Park clubhouse attendants banging the Washington Nationals' cleats off as they packed up from a brutal road trip was the only sound to be heard while the players solemnly collected themselves Wednesday afternoon.
Forty-nine games into the season, the Nationals have spent much more time — especially recently - quietly going about their business after games than they have reveling in a winning night.
Reeling from a 1-7 trip, the Nationals will hit the 50-game mark of the season Friday night when they host the San Diego Padres. They'll reach it on a season-high, five-game losing streak, nine games back in the National League East and with right fielder Jayson Werth calling for changes as their season teeters on the brink.
"I can't say it enough: We're better than this," said Michael Morse.
They may be, but despite the Nationals' insistence that they're satisfied with several positives — like clean games, an improving defense and an offense with numbers on the rise - what they are is a 21-28 team.
"You have to accept your record as that's what it is," manager Jim Riggleman said. "That's where you are, that must be what you are. But other than the record, and I'm repeating myself so many times, we've played really good baseball.
"I'm proud of the way we're getting after it. The effort has been outstanding, so I'm very pleased with the way our club goes about their business. Obviously, we want better results."
Lamenting missed opportunities has become something of a postgame ritual for Riggleman and his team after each loss.
"It seems like we're just one pitch, one play, one swing away from every game. It doesn't seem like we're out of every game," starter Jason Marquis said Wednesday.
And they're not wrong.
Thirty-three of the Nationals' 49 games have been decided by three runs or less. But Washington has lost 19 of those 33 and is 4-9 in one-run games, including losses in its past six. But perhaps even more telling is that in games decided by five runs or more, the Nationals are just 1-6.
There's no question that their biggest issue to date has been offense; they are batting .229, better than only San Diego in the majors, and have been shut out seven times.
The Nationals have shown flashes of breaking out: They tagged the Baltimore Orioles for 19 hits and 17 runs last Friday but scored only five runs in the 18 innings that followed. And they've shown glimpses of frustration: umpire altercations, managerial ejections and dugout confrontations between pitcher and manager.
They've also played the toughest schedule in the majors, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, mostly without All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Now, first baseman in Adam LaRoche is on disabled list, nursing a shoulder injury that may have been a big reason for his .172 batting average.
"That's no excuse," said Werth. "Just because you've got a guy out of the lineup or two, that you can't continue to win games. It's more of a crutch than anything else."
"We've just got to put it together, plain and simple," said veteran utility man Jerry Hairston Jr., who's gotten the majority of starts at third in Zimmerman's absence. "We've been kind of hit by the injury bug, but nobody's going to feel sorry for us. We've got to find a way to play better collectively. We've just got to go out and try to play good baseball."
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