- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2013

It looks more hopeless with each loss, with each runner left on base, with each strikeout looking, with each wasted pitching performance. The season is flashing by, and the Nationals can’t seem to catch up with it.

The Nats lost another prototypical 2013 game Saturday night, falling 3-1 to the Dodgers in 10 innings at Nationals Park. Gio Gonzalez struck out 11 Dodgers in six innings, tying a career high. It mattered not. The Nats left 12 runners on base. They went 1-12 with runners in scoring position.

They fell below .500 for the season, again, their record now 48-49. They blew a chance to pick up a game on the Braves, who lost to the White Sox earlier in the day. Atlanta still leads Washington by seven games.

It sure doesn’t look good.

But the Dodgers didn’t look good a month ago and look at them now. While it doesn’t seem likely that the Nats can match what Los Angeles has done, the Dodgers at least show it can be done.

On June 21, Los Angeles was 30-42 and 9 ½ games back in the National League West.

The Dodgers go into Sunday’s 1:35 series finale against the Nats with a 49-47 record. They’ve won 19 of their past 24 games. Depending upon what happened in Arizona’s late game against San Francisco, they could be as close as a half-game out when Sunday’s games start.

“We’ve pitched really good in general,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “We’ve started to score runs. Now we’re winning all kinds of ways as really the momentum has started to go our way.

“When teams win like this, there’s a confidence that builds within the clubhouse. You feel like you’re going to win these games. We lost a lot of these early in the year. Now we’re going in feeling like we’re going to win these.”

Besides the pitching that features Saturday’s winner Zack Greinke (six wins in the 24-game stretch) and Sunday starter Clayton Kershaw, Mattingly pointed to two factors. Hanley Ramirez came off the disabled list and Yasiel Puig was recalled from the minors.

Ramirez, who has killed the Nats as a Marlin and now as a Dodger, had three hits Saturday including the game-winner. He’s batting over .400 with runners in scoring position this season. Puig, though he hasn’t done much offensively this series, went into Saturday’s game with a .381 batting average. He was named NL player of the month and rookie of the month for June.

“When Yasiel came, he tore it up. When he came, Hanley came off the DL and tore it up,” Mattingly said. “We added two guys who could give us monster production in the middle of our lineup. When that happened, it built. Other guys relaxed. It seems like we were able to put some runs on the board.”

The Nats look awfully similar. The top three of their rotation – Stephen Strasburg, Gonzalez and Sunday starter Jordan Zimmermann – have all been strong. The Nats added a couple of key bats when Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth came off the disabled list after extended stays.

Yet they remain stuck in the mud, unable to escape the frustrating cycle of not enough hits at the right time.

“What we were really lacking was a consistent offense to go out there with what our pitching was doing,” Dodgers center fielder Andre Ethier said. “Hanley added a lot to our offense and the energy Yasiel brings has really sparked us.

“We kept looking at ourselves in the mirror, kept saying let’s get one game at a time and build from there. That’s what we did. It’s tough to regain that feeling. But once you do, it is easy to keep going. It was a matter of finding it and hopefully we can keep going.”

Ethier said what several Nationals have said this season: Looking at the standings does no good. When you’re not playing another team, you have no control over what it does. Win, and deficits chip away. The Dodgers have made up a big chunk in a month.

“We redefined our goals a little bit, took a step back and said we’re not trying to go out and be the best team in the National League right now,” Ethier said. “We need to try to be the best team in our division first. We were sitting at the bottom looking up. Fortunately, we had all those teams stacked up to play in a row, so we knew we could make up some ground doing it.

“One little spark, one little thing kind of sets it off. No one is going to let up on them, we learned that. No mercy. Teams wanted to keep kicking us while we’re down. We had to figure out a way, figure out in games like this how to hang in there long enough to give us a shot. We looked and there were still a lot of games left. Time was on our side. We knew we were capable of it from spring training, even when we weren’t playing well. We’ve believed that and we’ve had to keep that belief no matter what.”

Greinke, who won his sixth in a row Saturday, faced the Nationals in Los Angeles when Harper was out. He agreed the Nats look a lot like the Dodgers did – a capable team that hasn’t gotten it done yet.

“We’ve been a little healthy,” said Greinke, who missed time earlier this season with a broken collarbone. “It’s just like our whole team is on a roll. Defensively, we’re not making any mistakes. I don’t know how you can predict things like that. It has been happening.

“Their team looks great to me. Harper is fantastic. I faced them a month ago without him and he makes them much more dangerous. You expect Strasburg, Gio, Zimmermann to dominate you. The best you can hope for is a game like you had today.”

Mattingly thinks the Nationals have a run similar to what his team has done in them.

“It’s there. It just doesn’t need to start until Monday,” Mattingly said. “They got it there. They have talent and they have pitching. They’re capable of doing it. I’d be happy for them if it starts after tomorrow.”

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