ATLANTA - You can pass a share of the blame a number of different ways for last night's 2-1 Nationals loss to the Braves, if you're the blaming type.
You can blame the Nationals hitters for scratching out just five hits and going 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position. You can blame Ian Desmond, Roger Bernadina and Danny Espinosa for failing to get the go-ahead run across despite having runners at second and third with none out against Craig Kimbrel in the top of the ninth.
You can blame Henry Rodriguez for walking two, retiring just one of the four hitters he faced and allowing the game-winning run in the bottom of the 10th. You can blame Davey Johnson, I guess, for maybe not trying to squeeze one more inning out of Drew Storen after he threw just 12 pitches in a 1-2-3 eighth inning, given the state of the Nationals bullpen.
One thing you cannot really blame Johnson for, however, is going to Rodriguez with the game tied in the 10th.
At that point, Johnson only had four fresh arms still available in his bullpen: Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano, Zach Duke and Erik Davis.
Soriano was being held out in case of a save situation, the normal policy for the visiting team in extra innings. Duke has an 8.10 ERA this season and had only pitched one time in the previous 12 days. Davis had just gotten called up from Triple-A Syracuse and had yet to appear in a major league game.
If you have Rodriguez on your roster, he's the guy you go to in that spot. Of course, you can debate whether Rodriguez is a great fit on the roster if the Nats can't entirely trust him with a tie game in extra innings.
Situational hitting has been an issue for the Nats all season, as has scoring runs late in games. Both of those issues reared their ugly heads in the top of the ninth.
Desmond came up with runners at second and third with no outs, facing one of the toughest late-inning relievers in the game in Kimbrel. Instead of trying to shorten his swing or lift a mere fly ball to the outfield, Desmond said he went up with the same approach he would in any at-bat. Bernadina, batting behind Desmond, said he did the same.
"Against a guy like that, you've got to stick to your plan," Desmond said. "I got a good pitch to hit, I just fouled it off and then he painted one at high 90s or whatever - it was on the black. Speaking for myself, personally, obviously. We continue to get better at-bats against him, so step in the right direction. He's an unbelievable pitcher and you don't get the success he's had by just luck. So just tip your cap."
The good pitch that Desmond referenced was a 2-1 slider from Kimbrel that sat up a bit in the zone. Desmond took a cut but couldn't put the ball in play.
"Thinking back on the at-bat, yeah, that was probably my best pitch to hit," Desmond said. "Anytime you're behind in the count against him, it's tough. I had him where I wanted him, I just didn't get it done."
Gio Gonzalez pitched a fantastic game over seven innings last night, allowing just one run on three hits and striking out seven. He pounded the zone, throwing 72 of his 105 pitches for strikes, and now has gone at least 6 2/3 innings and allowed no more than two earned runs in four of his last five starts. In those five starts, he's a disappointing 0-1.
"It was a competitive game," Gonzalez said. "We tried. Everyone battled. I think I'm proud of these guys. They work their tails off every game. ... I'm pretty sure these guys are going to go out there and do their best. I'm not disappointed at all the way these guys played. They're playing their hearts out."
Desmond agreed that the effort level is there from the Nationals. Right now, they're just not getting a complete effort most nights. The offense either continues to fail to produce in big spots, or the pitching isn't getting the job done while working with a fairly small margin of error.
"We're putting our better foot forward now," Desmond said. "I think that's a huge step in the right direction. Like I said, getting walked-off on is brutal, but at the same time, we're giving a little more of a fight than we have in the past."