SAN DIEGO -- As the ball cracked off the bat of Will Venable and lofted into the cloudless southern California sky, Dan Haren turned over his left shoulder and watched. Any settling in he'd done over the previous three innings seemed to disappear as soon as the ball nestled into the right field seats.
Five batters later, Haren was forced to turn over the other shoulder and watch as Kyle Blanks put him through a familiar scene. This time the ball clanked off the brick facade of the Western Metal Supply Co. building in left.
In the Nationals' 13-4 loss to the San Diego Padres on Sunday, the home runs bookended a debacle of a four-run fifth inning that took the finale of this four-game series from tightly contested to a slow march until the 27th out.
"I hate to even talk about that one today," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. "It was a tough day."
Forty-four games into the 2013 campaign, the Nationals have never overcome more than a two-run deficit. As the Padres' assault continued to mount on Sunday, the Nationals needed plenty more than two.
"Way too many mistakes," Haren said, though he was hardly alone in making them. "The ball was up all day. It doesn't matter if you're playing the Padres or the Tigers. If you leave balls out over the middle of the plate and up, they're going to hammer it."
Despite moments of promise and flashes of the type of baseball they expected they'd show far more consistently this season, the Nationals ended the first week of their 10-game swing through the National League West 3-4. At 23-21, they packed their equipment and headed for San Francisco for a showdown with the equally inconsistent Giants, who are coming off a 1-5 road trip of their own.
The Nationals are not operating with their full complement of players, but as they've navigated their way through the first quarter of the season, it seems like they're constantly taking two steps forward, and one back.
"We've just kind of been hovering around .500," Haren said. "Win a few, lose a few. We're not healthy. That's one thing... We haven't hit our stride yet but I'm sure it's coming. We have too much talent to keep playing this mediocre."
"We could've won three out of four (against the Padres)," said center fielder Denard Span. "This is a series we could've won. We let (Saturday) go. (Sunday) they came out swinging. Just one of those days where their bats were hot. It's not the end of the world to split, but we feel like we could've got three out of four."
Sunday, it was a three-run first inning, the four-run fifth and a calamitous five-run seventh that did the Nationals in. Haren, who'd put together a string starts in which he'd looked far more like himself than in Aprill, allowed seven runs. Ryan Mattheus gave up five. A solo home run by Yonder Alonso in the eighth off Drew Storen accounted for the 13th.
With an offense that, were it not for the Miami Marlins, would possess the worst average and on-base percentage in the National League, the odds that the hole was one they could dig out of were slim.
With Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos on the disabled list with hamstring injuries, Bryce Harper sat for the second straight game with a sore left knee, collateral damage from his vicious collision with the right field wall at Dodger Stadium a week ago. The hope is that he might be ready to return on Monday. Ian Desmond was given his first day off of the season.
It left Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche isolated in the middle of the order. As was the case for much of their road trip, if Zimmerman or LaRoche weren't driving in the runs, the Nationals weren't scoring them. Since the Nationals departed D.C. last week, Zimmerman and LaRoche are a combined 18-for-52 (.346) with six home runs.
They've driven in 19 of the 24 runs the Nationals have scored on the trip. Zimmerman's monster two-run home run into the second deck in left field in the fourth inning, which traveled an estimated 414 feet, and an RBI single he sent to right field in the seventh, accounted for 75 percent of the Nationals' runs. LaRoche, of course, drove in the other.
If it wasn't obvious by the numbers, despite the fact that they scattered 10 hits on Sunday, the rest of the team's offensive contributions have been scarce.
Sunday few aspects of their performance were praise-worthy. LaRoche committed an error at first base. Tyler Moore went 0-for-4 to lower his average on the season to .127. Danny Espinosa was 0-for-4 to continue a miserable stretch in which he is 1-for-28.
Steve Lombardozzi led the way with his first three-hit game of the season. Span and Zimmerman joined him in the multi-hit category. Otherwise it was more starts and stops.
"You have to have a lot of patience sometimes in this job," Johnson said. "The middle of the lineup is swinging the bat very good, and other guys look like they're starting to come around. Sometimes it just takes time to jell."
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