Nats start fast before Simon slows bats in 2-1 loss to Reds

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It is not something the Nationals care to admit. It sounds like nothing more than a lame excuse. Every team deals with injuries, after all.

But there’s also no question that Washington is in survival mode early in the 2014 season. The Nats regained their top catcher earlier this month (Wilson Ramos) and their first baseman (Adam LaRoche) and best hitter went down three days later. A pitching rotation brought back a key starter on May 9 (Doug Fister) only to lose another to the disabled list on May 18 (Gio Gonzalez).

Throughout the organization, depth is being tested almost daily now. That showed again Wednesday afternoon when Washington’s bats went silent against the Cincinnati Reds and journeyman starter Alfredo Simon in a 2-1 loss at Nationals Park.

“Right now we’re banged up,” center fielder Denard Span said. “It’s tough because I feel like we’re still playing good baseball even with our circumstances.”

Indeed, the Nats lost an extra-inning game on Monday 4-3 and dropped another one-run decision in Wednesday’s rain-delayed afternoon contest. They leave a six-game homestand at 3-3, treading water as they wait for reinforcements and hope no one else gets hurt in the meantime. For now, LaRoche, Gonzalez, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and left fielder Bryce Harper are still out.

“We can’t do anything about it,” Washington manager Matt Williams said. “We want those guys back as quickly as possible. But our guys are capable, too.”

Still, the depth gets exposed when Williams needs to give Anthony Rendon — filling in at third base for Zimmerman — a day off in the midst of a stretch of 19 games in 20 days. Kevin Frandsen, starting at third base in Rendon’s place on Wednesday, committed an error on a ground ball that led to a run in the fourth inning and had another sharply hit ball bounce off his glove for an infield hit.

“You lose that power, you lose that threat of big hitters coming up in big situations,” Span said about missing left-handed batters like Harper and LaRoche, who was off to a torrid start before landing on the disabled list with a right quadriceps injury. He could return as soon as Sunday.

Washington struggled to solve Simon, at age 33 having one of the best seasons of his career. Seven times now he has left a game after having allowed two runs or less. His ERA is 2.31.

After Span’s leadoff homer in the bottom of the first inning, Simon retired 17 of the next 22 batters he faced with only three hits allowed during that stretch. Simon even shook off a rain delay of one hour, one minute and returned for the sixth and seventh innings. He’d thrown 73 pitches before the delay and gave up just one single to the six batters he faced in those final two frames, leaving with the Reds still ahead 2-1.

Simon finished his day by getting pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs to fly out to shallow right field with a runner at first in the seventh inning. He allowed five hits total, walked a batter, hit another and struck out six.

Span had another nice game. He hit that leadoff homer and later singled in the eighth inning. Earlier this week, Span’s on-base percentage dropped to a woeful .287. His batting average had slipped below .240. Questions were asked of Williams if Span should stay in the leadoff spot or if he was hurting the team with those numbers at the top of the order.

But seasons can turn on a dime. Span went 5 for 5 in a memorable night at the plate Tuesday against the Reds. He became just the sixth Nats player to get five hits in a game since baseball returned to the District in 2005. Over his last nine games, Span is 15 for 40.

That early lead wouldn’t last. In the fourth inning, starter Tanner Roark’s pitches stayed up in the zone and the Reds took advantage. Zack Cozart led off with a double and scored on a Brandon Phillips RBI single up the middle. A Brayan Pena basehit later in the inning scored Phillips for what turned out to be the winning run.

Roark was solid enough, however. He tossed six innings and allowed just one earned run. Frandsen’s error in the fourth inning contributed to one of those runs. Roark gave up six hits, though he did walk three batters, He, too, returned after the rain delay, pitching another scoreless inning after escaping a two-out jam with runners on first and second when he snared a comebacker off the bat of Simon.

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