ATLANTA -- Hours before the Nationals would lose their 72nd game of the 2011 season, their manager was asked one simple question in the visitors' dugout at Turner Field. What does he want to see out his team in the season's final month?
"Swing the bat better," Davey Johnson said, matter-of-factly, before the Nationals would do nothing of the sort in a 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves to seal a 1-5 road trip.
And when it was over, and another pitcher had shut down a Nationals offense that has spent almost the entirety of the season waiting for its collective breakout, Johnson summed up the team's performance even more succinctly than he did his wishes for the month of September.
"We just are not hitting well enough to win," he said, perhaps unknowingly explaining more than just the Nationals' most recent stretch of games that has produced one win in their last nine tries.
"I think the talent is there but, unfortunately, it just hasn't produced. That's the bottom line. ... We just are going meekly. That's the frustrating part."
Their lone offensive explosion, a nine-run performance Tuesday night, came off a pitcher who was taken for an MRI on his knee Thursday afternoon. And with each at-bat against anyone not named Jair Jurrjens, the Nationals have made that night look more and more like a fleeting aberration than anything they can sustain over a lengthy string of games.
In the Nationals' last three series, their starting pitchers have lasted an average of 6 1/3 innings and allowed just 2.01 runs per game. And for all of that, they have precisely one win to show for it. The Nationals' offense hasn't struggled to hit home runs. They hit six in three days in Atlanta. It's any other kind of offense that's given them trouble.
Over that same 10-game stretch, while their pitchers have been pitching well enough to win most, if not all, of those contests, the offense has averaged 2.8 runs per night. Chien-Ming Wang, who went 5 2/3 innings Thursday night and allowed four earned runs, was the first pitcher in the last 10 games to allow more than three earned. The Nationals have won just two of those games.
It's a predicament that has left them searching.
"You feel like you should win the games," said outfielder Jayson Werth, who accounted for the Nationals' first run with a solo homer in the sixth. "You're playing good enough to win, but we're not. It's tough. It's hard to swallow and it's unfortunate because I feel like we've got a lot of talent and a good club and we've got the guys to win. It's just not happening, unfortunately.
"If we knew [how to fix it], we'd do something about it. Just the way of the world right now, unfortunately. I feel like it shouldn't be like that. It's frustrating."
They were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position Thursday night, leaving seven runners on base and none more painful than the three they stranded after they forced seemingly unbreakable set-up man Jonny Venters to walk the bases loaded.
With the Braves leading 4-1, Jonny Gomes reached on an infield single to open the eighth inning, moved to second on a ground out and bravely stole third base. Two batters later it didn't matter. He'd have gotten there anyway for free after Venters walked Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman. The Nationals pulled within two when Michael Morse -- who thought he walked on a 3-0 pitch, even flipping his bat aside -- then reached on an error by Chipper Jones to bring Gomes home.
But then, the Nationals reverted back. They sent Jesus Flores and Danny Espinosa to the plate only to watch both strikeout. The inning ended and, with Braves rookie closer Craig Kimbrel set to be summoned for the ninth, so did any hope for a Nationals comeback.
"We just didn't get it done," Johnson said. "Kind of the same stuff all year long. We battled. We had a chance to do something. We just didn't do it."
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