"Do I think our approach is getting better? Yes. But the results aren't there yet." Manager Davey Johnson, following the Nats ninth loss in ten games.
Davey Johnson, as he has done after every loss since he's taken over as manager of the Washington Nationals, looked exasperated and frustrated when he met with the media following a 7-3 loss to the New York Mets last night. The loss marks the Nats ninth in their last 10 games, including four at home, and drops their record to a season-low 10 games below .500 at 63-73. It also drops the Nats four games behind the Mets in the race for third place in the N.L. East.
It's not how Johnson wants to finish the season, that's for sure. It's been a year of improvement on many levels, but struggling down the stretch has put a damper on the most obvious achievement: the overall record. Merely ten days ago the Nats were 62-64 after a 4-1 win over Arizona, on pace to win 79 games. After losing nine out of 10 games, that figure dramatically drops to 75 wins.
The Nationals only need to win seven out of their last 26 to pass last year's total, and 11 wins to become the second winningest team since the move in 2005. But the way they're playing right now nothing is out of the question.
Last night saw the Nats suffer from the same ailment that has plagued them all season long: the inability to score runs. They outhit the Mets 12-9, but left eight men on base and had one erased on a double play.
But the real culprit was starting pitcher Ross Detwiler. The 25-year old lefty just didn't have it, giving up a three-run homer to David Wright in the first inning, a solo shot to Nick Evans in the second, and two more runs in the third. All told, he gave up six earned runs on seven hits, striking out just two, in three innings, raising his season ERA by more than a run, up to 3.83.
"It was one of those games where he didn't locate very good," Johnson said of Detwiler. "He left a fastball middle-in to the third baseman, that wasn't good. We tried to pitch [Wright] in but you can't leave it over the plate. I don't think he had real good command. He didn't really use his off-speed stuff. Just one of those days you turn the page on."
The Nats had a couple of chances to get into Mets starter R.A. Dickey (W, 7-11. 3.60), especially early. In the second, the Nats put two on with no outs. After an Alex Cora fly out (0-for-4, .219), Ross Detwiler sacrificed runners to second and third. But with two outs, Ian Desmond took a big hack at an outside knuckeball and flied out weakly to center field to kill the rally.
"We still make young mistakes," Johnson explained. "Like Desmond tonight. We had a couple runners in scoring position and he tried to force it and make something happen, [swinging] at a couple balls out of the zone; really high pitches, high knuckleballs. You need [the pitcher] to come into your area, into your zone. But that's just trying to make something happen. You gotta take what's there."
In the seventh, the Nats again put their leadoff batter on, with Brian Bixler singling to left. Mets manager Tim Collins called on lefty Tim Byrdak, and he struck out Desmond and Rick Ankiel (who had homered earlier in the game), again both taking big hacks at outside pitches instead of looking for something more in their zone. Ryan Zimmerman took an outside pitch to right field for a single, but Michael Morse swung through a slider to end the inning.
Johnson took an honest assessment of the situation after the game. "If you look at our production, our on base, guys in scoring position, we're not good. You look at the bench production, we're not good. Do I think our approach is getting better? Yes. But the results aren't there yet."
"Nobody hates to lose worse than me. I probably take it harder than anyone. I tell them, 'Managers take the losses, you guys take the wins'. I'm not happy with it. But I am happy with what I've seen and the approach and the attitude. I like the direction we're going in."
It's a familiar, if uncomfortable refrain by now. If the Nationals can't find a way to break the doldrums they find themselves in, they run the risk of allowing all the progress they'd made up until Aug. 22 -- when they beat the Diamondbacks and found themselves just two games below .500 with 36 games to play -- to vanish like it never even happened.
THE GOOD: Collin Balester went four innings in relief of Detwiler, allowing one run, a solo homer by Lucas Duda, and seven hits, walking one.
THE BAD: Zero. That's the amount of walks the Nats had against a knuckleball pitcher last night.
THE UGLY: Desmond. Although he went 2-for-5, his approach at the plate is absolutely frustrating. There's no situational awareness, no cutting down the swing, no pitch recognition. He swings from the heels every time at bat and until someone gets through to him, he's going to be a streaky singles hitter with low OBP.
THE STATS: 12 hits, no walks, seven strikeouts. 2-for-6 w/RISP, eight LOB, one GIDP. E: Cora (4).
NEXT GAME: Saturday at 7:05 pm against the Mets. Tom Milone makes his Major League debut against Dillon Gee (12-5, 4.24).