For three days this weekend in Washington, bliss settled over Nationals Park. A batch of splendid spring weather arrived and brought with it play from the Washington Nationals much more befitting the bona fide contender they expect to be.
For three days, the Nationals took it to the Cincinnati Reds. They restored a small bit of sanity to a fan base that wondered if the season was teetering on a dangerous edge, despite the fact that the calendar had yet to flip to May, and saw only positives for the first time in a few days.
Then Sunday afternoon came, with overcast skies rolling in just before game time. In a 5-2 loss, the Nationals' bid for a sweep of another National League contender fell victim to singles, some just out of reach, and a hard-throwing rookie left-hander.
"When you play three good games like that, that's why four-game series are hard," said shortstop Ian Desmond, who was the only Nationals batter to register a multihit game. "They got a pretty good scouting report on us after three offensive games.
"[But] we won the series. On to the next one."
Tony Cingrani, a former Rice University teammate of Nationals rookie Anthony Rendon who was making his third major league start, was the benefactor of that scouting report. With a sneaky fastball, a deceptive delivery and a handful of off-speed pitches, Cingrani baffled the Nationals.
In six scoreless innings of work, Cingrani allowed just two hits. He struck out 11 and walked one — adding to a stat line that is treading into eye-popping territory with 28 strikeouts and just four walks in 18 big-league innings.
Three of those Ks belong now to Adam LaRoche, the Nationals first baseman mired in an 0-for-26 slump that is taking a visible toll on the easygoing veteran.
"Every at-bat right now, before the at-bat even starts I feel like I've got a strike or two on me," LaRoche said. "It's tough to hit like that. It's tough to hit in a defensive mode and I've never been successful hitting on the defensive side. I'm going to stay aggressive, and I expect it to turn.
"I've got one of two options here. I either keep my head up, keep swinging, or pack up and go home. I'm not ready to go home yet."
While Cingrani dealt, carrying a perfect game into the fourth inning, Nationals left-hander Ross Detwiler pitched through what had to be one of his most infuriating days on a mound in quite some time.
The fastball-reliant Detwiler gave up few hard-hit balls, and 10 of the 11 hits the Reds tagged him for were singles. Four of those never left the infield. The Nationals committed two errors.
Even slow-footed Reds catcher Corky Miller hit a ground ball up the middle that bounced off Detwiler and out of his line of sight for one of those infield hits.
"I've got to make better pitches at the right times," Detwiler said, shrugging his shoulders at the suggestion of bad luck.
Manager Davey Johnson and Detwiler agreed he wasn't at his sharpest, but after a terrific string of starts to open the season, pitching coach Steve McCatty and catcher Kurt Suzuki implored Detwiler to stick with his strengths: pounding the strike zone and peppering hitters with his two fastballs. Even when they're blooping base hits into right field.
"He battled 'em, gave us five innings, kept us in the ballgame, gave us a chance to win," Johnson said. "But there are times like that where he needs to use his whole arsenal. But he'll get there."
When Cingrani was gone from the game, the Nationals threatened often. But outside of an RBI double by Suzuki off the base of the left-field wall, and another by Desmond into center field, nothing came of those threats.
As they packed for a seven-game road trip that will start with a pivotal series against the Atlanta Braves, they tried to look at the good things that came out of this weekend and not the return of frustration.
"We just won a series," Detwiler said. "We won a four-game series and that's tough to do. It's very positive looking forward."
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