Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ian Desmond reached second base three times ... but never scored.
You can blame it on Ian Desmond attempting to steal third with one out in the seventh and getting doubled off second base as a result. That killed one of the best rally opportunities of the evening.
Or you can blame it on the lineup as a whole for continually failing to come through in key situations. It's hard to win when you go 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
Really, though, you can't blame this loss on any one of those factors more than the others. If anything, the reason the Nationals lost tonight — and have now lost a staggering 15 consecutive 1-run games on the road — is that they consistently come up short in all of those areas we like to call "the little things."
The Nats did plenty of things well tonight. They got a competent start out of Jason Marquis for the first time all season. They got three more perfect innings from their bullpen. They put 14 men on base (at least one in every inning) against Roy Halladay, Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge. Their rookie shortstop had three hits. Their big slugger reached base three times. Their leadoff man opened the game with a double and then distracted Halladay into committing a balk.
Jim Riggleman emphasized the positives when he made some brief remarks to his players after this one.
"You just faced two Cy Young candidates in [Tim] Hudson and Halladay, and you had them both on the ropes," the manager said. "Be proud of that. We're going to get over the hump. I'd rather have them out there and not drive them in than not have them out there. To play Atlanta and Philadelphia as tough as our guys are playing them ..."
Riggleman paused for a second, realizing how this was going to come across to a public that isn't interested in sugarcoating.
"I know it's not what fans want to hear," he continued. "It sounds like I'm accepting that we got beat. I'm not accepting it at all. I hate it. But I'm proud of the way they're competing against those ballclubs. We're showing ourselves that we can play with these guys."
So what's the difference between the Braves or Phillies and the Nationals? Those teams do the little things necessary to win a close ballgame. The Nats don't.
The Braves today won for the 22nd time this season in their final at-bat. That's 22 games that went down to the wire but tilted in their favor because they did something right when it mattered most. The Phillies are now 20-12 in 1-run games. They've committed the fifth-fewest errors in the NL. They're successful on 83 percent of stolen base attempts, best in baseball.
Do the Nationals do any of those things well?
That's the hurdle the Nats must overcome if they are going to become a legitimate contender. For five years, they didn't have the talent to match their toughest competitors. Slowly but surely, they've gotten within striking distance in that department. They may not be able to go toe-to-toe with the Phillies in the talent department, but the disparity isn't outrageous anymore.
No, the biggest disparity between these two clubs — one which is trying to win its third straight NL pennant, the other which is trying to avoid a third-straight 100-loss season — falls under the category of "intangibles." The Phillies play winning baseball. The Nats don't.
The most critical play of tonight's game (Desmond getting doubled off second base in the seventh) stands out. Desperate to get himself to third with one out so Ryan Zimmerman would have a chance to drive him in with a fly ball, Desmond bolted for third. He got a great jump and probably would have stolen the base easily had Zimmerman not made contact.
But Zimmerman did make contact. He roped a line drive right at Raul Ibanez in left field. Desmond, who was so far down the line with so much forward momentum he felt his best option was to slide into third base, pop himself back up and sprint back to second, actually beat Ibanez's wide throw. He was safe. Except he overslid the bag, and Chase Utley tagged him out to complete the rally-killing double play.
"Every time I get on base, I'm trying to advance to the next base," Desmond said. "He was looking at me every time, and I just timed him up, finally, and was able to get a good jump. Zim got a good pitch to hit. If that ball goes in the gap, two runs score. That's just the way it's kind of going right now. You hit it right at the guy, and he was able to double us off."
Yes, that's the way it seems to go for the Nationals, especially on the road where they're now 21-43.
But how much of that is bad luck, and how much of it is this team's inability to do the little things that give itself a better chance of winning?
The Nats went toe-to-toe with the two-time NL champs and their Cy Young-caliber pitcher tonight. They were in position to pull off what would have been one of their unlikeliest victories of the season. Yes, there's something to be said for that.
But until they learn how to make the most of these opportunities and do the two or three little things necessary to win a 1-run game in a hostile environment, there's going to be a lot more sugarcoating going on inside the Nationals' clubhouse.
And that's not going to overpower the increasingly bitter taste most fans probably have in their mouths right now.