Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
The Nationals stranded 13 men on base in today's loss.
There was an opportunity this weekend to erase some of the frustration of the last month and close out the season's first half on a high note. Two days ago, the Nats were 5-3 on this homestand, with a chance to finish it 6-4 or even 7-3.
And then they put forth a couple of duds against the Giants, losing last night 10-5 when Tyler Clippard imploded in the seventh and then losing today 6-2 after Livan Hernandez spotted San Francisco a five-run lead.
What could have been an uplifting conclusion to the season's first half instead ended on another downswing, not to mention a 39-50 record and a firm grip on last place in the NL East.
For the fifth consecutive season, the Nationals head into the All-Star break with at least 50 losses in the books, an ignominious streak they could have snapped with just one weekend victory.
Which isn't to say this team hasn't made some significant strides over the last 3 1/2 months. These aren't the 2009 Nats, who a year ago at this point were 26-61 and about to fire Manny Acta. But there's also a sense around this club that things could (and should) be better than this.
"There's progress," Jim Riggleman said. "But we want to get to the point where we're not satisfied with progress. We want to make that next step."
Two things the Nationals could do immediately to help them take another step forward rather than two steps back: 1) Quit putting themselves in an early hole every night, and 2) Take better advantage of what scoring opportunities they get.
For some reason, the Nats' starting rotation was unable to escape the first inning unscathed the entire homestand. When Hernandez put his teammates in a 2-0 hole today, it represented the 10th time in 11 games the opposition has scored in the first inning.
"We try," Hernandez said. "We try to [get] people out 1-2-3 in the first inning. But it's not happening right now."
The Nationals actually had managed to overcome the early deficits through much of the homestand, winning five of those 10 games. But as Riggleman put it, "that's not the way you draw it up."
So the pressure will be on Stephen Strasburg, Hernandez and the rest of the rotation to come out of the chute in better shape when the season reconvenes Friday night in Miami. After that, the pressure will be on the Nats' lineup to make the most of its scoring opportunities.
There were plenty of those today; The Nationals put 17 men on base in nine innings, 11 of them in the game's final four innings. Only two of them actually scored.
What was the key at-bat during that stretch? Take your pick. Michael Morse came up with the bases loaded and two outs in the sixth, got ahead of Giants rookie Madison Bumgarner to create a 2-1 count and then flied out to right. One inning later, the bases were loaded again with one out and Josh Willingham at the plate. He proceeded to get three straight sliders from Sergio Romo for strikes, whiffing at the last two.
"He's got a good slider, but I'd never seen it before," Willingham said. "Next time, I'll have a better chance."
The Nationals had done a much better job hitting in the clutch in last week, led by a torrid Adam Dunn. But this lineup still hasn't shown an ability to sustain offensive momentum from game to game.
So inside a mostly quiet postgame clubhouse in which only one of eight TVs was turned on -- a couple of guys were watching the final minutes of the World Cup final -- players packed their bags and wished each other a pleasant All-Star break.
They dispersed around the country, eager to get away from baseball for a few days.
They were not in poor spirits, by any means. But after a couple of lackluster losses just when it looked like things were taking a turn for the better, the mood was less-than-ecstatic.
"It should leave a sour taste," Riggleman said. "When you lose, it should be a sour taste. And it is."