Johnson: “Boy, we needed that one”

Another tight ballgame, another strong pitching performance, another night where the offense isn’t able to deliver.

Tonight’s 3-2 Nationals loss feels like so many before it.

The Nats took a 1-0 lead in the first inning, got seven strong frames from Stephen Strasburg and then watched things slip away. Justin Upton’s solo homer leading off the eighth off Tyler Clippard gave the Braves the lead, one they didn’t relinquish.

After the first inning, the Nationals went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, and despite putting the leadoff runner on base in seven of their final eight frames, they put up just one run in that time.

“I mean, that’s baseball. But boy, we needed that one,” manager Davey Johnson said, letting out a deep sigh. “And Clip, (Upton’s) sitting all over his changeup. Didn’t throw a good changeup. Upton crushed it.”

The Nats hit a number of balls hard tonight, but got little to fall in when it mattered. The Braves, on the other hand, took advantage of their opportunities, turning two infield singles into a run in the third and then scoring the tying run in the fifth just moments after Upton stole second easily on Strasburg, moving into scoring position.

“The whole ballgame, I thought we played well,” Johnson said. “I thought we hit the ball well. Just hit it right at people. That one inning was a joke with them. They could’ve had three hits on the infield. Desi (Ian Desmond) made a great play on the pitcher’s ball. But just, we hit balls on the nose pretty much better than we’ve been doing. Came up with nada. ...

“We didn’t swing the bats good, but I thought we swung the bats better. But we didn’t get any results. But Stras pitched a heck of a ballgame.”

Upton’s stolen base off Strasburg in the fifth was frustrating for Johnson for multiple reasons; it was so darn easy, as Upton took off well before Strasburg even made a move to the plate, and the Nats have been trying to reinforce the importance of Strasburg varying his times to the plate in order to hold runners better.

“I mean, we’ve worked with him and worked with him,” Johnson said. “(His timing is) too regular. He has the same pattern every time. He’s very quick to the plate, but he is locked in his ways. We throw over there more than we want to because of that, and he doesn’t even wait to do that. It’s always right from the get-go. That’s still a work in progress.”

The Nats had two great chances to push a run across late in the game. In the seventh, Scott Hairston doubled leading off the inning, only to see the pinch-hitting Jayson Werth (who got treatment on his strained groin during the game) strike out, Bryce Harper line out and Ian Desmond ground out in front of the plate.

Some managers might have opted to drop down a sac bunt with no outs to move Hairston to third. Not Johnson, who rarely ever calls for the sacrifice.

“I’ve got my best hitter available, swinging a hot bat,” Johnson said of Werth. “I’m going to have him drive him in or he can get the ball the other way. (Strasburg’s) already thrown I think 111 or (112) pitches. I’m not going to let him throw 125 or something, even though he had an extra day off.”

Then in the ninth, Anthony Rendon singled leading off the frame. Denard Span dropped down a bunt to move Rendon to second, and a wild pitch from Jordan Walden pushed Rendon to third. Hairston popped out foul and Chad Tracy flied out to end the game, however.

Johnson’s signal to Span was for him to try to bunt for a base hit, but with the corner infielders crashing in, all Span could do was push the ball up the third base line. He was easily thrown out at first base.

“I would’ve rather seen him try to bunt and get on,” Johnson said. “That’s something he hasn’t done a lot of. But I didn’t want a straight sacrifice.”

More frustration, more deep sighs after another loss. And now a 13 1/2 game deficit in the National League East.

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