First day back after the All-Star Break, seemed like a great time for the Washington Nationals to put their sputtering 2013 season into gear and get started contending in the National League East, as everyone expected them to do. Instead, fans were “treated” to a display that screamed “deja vu” as the Nationals fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-2 Friday night at Nationals Park.
Andre Ethier snapped a 2-2 tie with a game-winning, ninth-inning home run off Rafael Soriano, but the eight innings that preceded that blast were eerily reminiscent of past performances for the Nationals, who fell back to .500 on the season at 48-48 and are now in third place in the division, looking up at the Philadelphia Phillies.
There was a full hand’s worth of fingers with which to count the recurring themes that popped up in Friday’s second-half opener — one that featured the same pitching match-up as this year’s first-half opener, as Stephen Strasburg battled Ricky Nolasco. But unlike in April’s curtain-raiser, this time Nolasco pitched for a playoff contender, and the two runs the Nats scratched together off him would not stand up.
Washington did score first, with a little help from third base umpire Eric Cooper. After Bryce Harper led off the second inning with a laser-beam double, he attempted to advance on a fly ball to right by Jayson Werth. Yasiel Puig uncorked a beauty of a throw that appeared to nip Harper at third, but the 20-year-old got the benefit of the call and came home on a wild pitch two pitches later.
From there, it was like Groundhog Day at Nats Park. The first occurrence came in the third inning, and sent Washington fans into the wayback machine. When Hanley Ramirez was with the Marlins, he routinely wore out Nationals pitching, belting 26 home runs vs. Washington and sporting a batting average well over .300. When he blasted a Strasburg fastball into the right-field seats Friday to give L.A. a 2-1 lead, it probably should have been the first indicator that things weren’t magically going to change for Washington overnight.
Probably the most glaring problem befalling the Nationals this season has been with the bats, especially when it has come to taking advantage of run-scoring opportunities. There could be no better opportunity than the one Washington had in the fourth inning Friday, as back-to-back singles by Ryan Zimmerman and Harper, and a walk to Werth, loaded the bases with no one out. But Ian Desmond managed just a check-swing grounder to third that Juan Uribe had to come home with for a fielder’s choice. Chad Tracy, playing first for an ill Adam LaRoche, then popped out to shallow left, too short for Harper to chance scoring. When Wilson Ramos chopped back to Nolasco for the third out, a smattering of boos could be heard at Nats Park from fans tired of seeing the same results.
The offensive problems were nothing new for Strasburg, who came into the game with a 2.99 ERA, but a 5-7 record — the best ERA in baseball for a starting pitcher with a losing record. After a mini-threat in the fourth inning by the Dodgers, Strasburg was perfect, retiring the last 11 batters he faced as he put in a solid seven innings of work. Still, the Nationals couldn’t get him the win, even though they did manage to tie the score in the sixth on a bloop single to center by Desmond that plated Zimmerman.
Another familiar aspect of the season thus far has been the Nationals inability to come up with late offense, especially against opponent’s bullpens. Washington’s .616 OPS from the seventh inning on thus far this season is the worst in the National League, and it didn’t get better on Friday, as the Nats managed just a flared single by pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi in 11 at-bats against L.A.’s bullpen quartet of Jose Dominguez, Paco Rodriguez, Ronald Belisario and Kenley Jansen.
Meanwhile, there are corners in which Nats manager Davey Johnson has been questioned this season, and Friday’s late-game moves didn’t exactly inspire renewed confidence. After Lombardozzi hit for Strasburg in the seventh, Johnson left him in the game at second base and pulled Anthony Rendon, giving at least the impression that reliever Tyler Clippard could throw more than one inning. But when the ninth inning came around, despite Clippard’s dominant eighth frame, it was Soriano who got the call. And when Ethier 9-ironed a down-and-in slider into the first row of seats in right, it meant instead of a fresh start in the second half, the Nationals still would be dealing with all the same issues that saw them underachieving in the first half.