PITTSBURGH — The silence that pervaded the visitor’s clubhouse at PNC Park on Wednesday night was drenched in frustration. Players sat quietly at their lockers or swiftly made their way toward the showers and the waiting busses. Not too many, it seemed, wanted to spend much time reliving what had just transpired.
If they did look back, what the Washington Nationals would find in their 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates is a laundry list of squandered opportunities.
They’d find 11 strikeouts as a team — all swinging — in a game the opposing starter, Erik Bedard, left after three batters with an injury. They’d find 10 runners left on the basepaths, including five in the final two innings alone, and pitch after pitch that was swung through or reached for.
“You’ve got to make contact,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, perhaps as defeated following a loss as he has been in the 10 ½ months since he took the job. “You can’t drive a run in without making contact. Sometimes we expand and chase balls early in the count and we just can’t do that. That’s not being a good hitter.
“We had so many chances. I thought, two or three times, ‘Just a little bloop here and we’ll win this ballgame.’ It’s just not coming.”
The Nationals have nine 10-plus strikeout games already this season, tied for second in the major leagues in that category with the Milwaukee Brewers and Houston Astros. In the last two games alone, they’ve struck out 23 times and not many of their hitters have been immune. Among players who started both games this series, the only one who hasn’t struck out at all is 19-year-old Bryce Harper.
“I don’t know if guys are feeling too much pressure because we’re having trouble generating runs,” Johnson said. “But boy, guys, the pitcher’s in a jam. Just relax and if he throws it over, hit it.”
Looking back, though, won’t fix any of the Nationals‘ problems as they move forward and try to avoid their second sweep of the season on Thursday. After three runs over six innings from Ross Detwiler wasn’t enough for the win, they send Stephen Strasburg to the mound hoping their ace can play stopper to their three-game losing streak.
A streak that has left them trying to figure out how they could go about fixing the struggles at the plate.
Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein lamented the approach of his hitters in not keeping their eyes constricted to the zones in which they hit best. “If you’re looking in places where you know it’s really not your strength and the ball goes into your strength zone and you’re not keyed into that area, the tendency is to miss it,” Eckstein said.
But he also intimated that the Nationals as a whole are pressing to come through because scoring runs has been such a struggle for them this season. Even when they do manage to get guys on, to pass the baton to the guy behind them, they’ve more often than not come up short. The Nationals are hitting .230 with runners in scoring position; with a runner on third and less than two outs, they’ve succeeded in driving him home less than 50 percent of the time.
“We have to get better with two strikes,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who struck out three times, including the one to end the game with runners on second and third. “We’ve all been, unfortunately, guilty of it sometimes this year. It’s not easy to get the job done every time. You get the job done three or four times out of 10, you’re doing unbelievable. But one time out of 10 isn’t going to do it.”
“People are frustrated because they know what we can do,” said shortstop Ian Desmond.
There are plenty of positives for the Nationals. By numbers, they have the best pitching staff in the major leagues and are still on pace to win 97 games. But there was little they could do to cover up the fact that, as Johnson put it, they had the guys they wanted up in the situations they wanted them up in. They simply didn’t come through.
“I liked the matchups we had,” Johnson said. “We had men in scoring position and we just didn’t swing the bats.”