- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

HOUSTON — Though the Washington Nationals lost three of their final four games entering the All-Star break, they still were one of the hottest teams in baseball. The coin that had flipped against them in so many one-run games early in the year had turned in their favor.

But after a 3-2 loss to the Houston Astros in 11 innings Wednesday, the Nationals acknowledged a missed opportunity, dropping the series to the majors’ worst team.

“No question about it,” manager Davey Johnson said. “It was a good series. We’re coming along, but I wanted to win two out of three here for sure.”

Washington has played 39 one-run games, going 18-21. Under Johnson, they’ve played 19 games and 13 have been decided by one run - seven of them losses.

Todd Coffey (3-1) took the loss after allowing three hits in the 11th, the last a single by Jason Michaels that scored Humberto Quintero. That ended nine straight scoreless innings by starter Livan Hernandez and the bullpen.

“The bottom line is they got the hits and what they needed to do to win the game, and it I blew it for us tonight,” Coffey said, less than 24 hours after he allowed the decisive run Tuesday night. “That’s two nights in a row that I let the team down, and that falls on my shoulders. Trust me, no one feels as bad as I do.”

The Nationals‘ only offense was a two-run homer in the sixth by Jayson Werth, the first time the right fielder had gone deep since June 16.

Mired in a slump that dropped his average to .212 entering the game, Werth took a step away from his usual strategy when he offered at not one but two of the first pitches he saw Wednesday. The first he hit for a double. The second, his game-tying home run. It was the first game Werth had two extra-base hits since May 20, and he’d had just one extra-base hit since June 25.

“He’s a situational hitter,” said hitting coach Rick Eckstein. “I think in his past, he’s been one of the guys that’s seen some of the most pitches per at-bat - but that’s something that we’ve talked about.

“In certain situations when you kind of have a good hunch as to what you’re looking for, don’t let him get that first strike over. Put that seed in their head. He’s been able to go out there at times and be more aggressive early in the count, and it’s done some good for him.”

Werth doesn’t usually offer at the first pitch. He sees a lot of pitches - averaging 4.45 per plate appearance in his career - and he rarely sees fewer than two. Entering Wednesday, Werth had swung at the first pitch just 48 times in 406 plate appearances. He’d put himself in an 0-1 hole in 57 percent of the times he stepped to the plate this season.

“He was a lot more aggressive today,” Johnson said. “He hit a couple first-pitch fastballs, which he hadn’t done. That’s a really good sign … It’s wonderful to see, but the other guys just didn’t have it today.”

While Werth’s burst was the story for the Nationals offensively, as he accounted for one-third of their total hits, Tyler Clippard again was effective in relief. The All-Star entered with two on in the eighth after two walks and a wild pitch by Henry Rodriguez. He wriggled out of the jam by inducing a popout to first and striking out Quintero to end the inning. He did it again in the ninth after a single and a walk, earning the moniker of “Houdini” from his manager.

The bats, aside from Werth’s were silent. Washington stranded eight and went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position. The Nationals have lost four of their past six, three by one run. For one day, though, it didn’t dim their optimism.

“It kind of seems like all year we just aren’t matching up,” Werth said. “When we pitch, we don’t hit. When we hit, we don’t pitch. So that makes it tough. Our pitching’s been good all year - which has been picking up the hitting. That’s a big part of what got us to .500 ball at the break. Going into the second half, we’re going to have to pitch and we’re going to half to hit.

“If we want to make a run at the wild card or make a run at the division, we’re going to have to match up. On the nights we get beat, it’d be better if we didn’t pitch and didn’t hit. We’ve got to do both to win. That’s what it’s going to take.”

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