ATLANTA - In many ways, today's 2-1 Nationals loss was a microcosm of their season to this point.
The Nats got pretty solid starting pitching, as Gio Gonzalez allowed two runs over seven innings. They gave themselves chances to do damage offensively, putting 12 runners on base and getting 13 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
And yet, they drove in a single run and ended up on the losing end of another tight ballgame. The Nats couldn't capitalize on putting the first two runners on in each of the first, second and third innings and were 1-for-13 overall in their chances with runners in scoring position.
"It's getting to be kind of sad: When we set the table, we don't have good at-bats, we don't drive them in," manager Davey Johnson said. "We did a good job getting on base, but not situational hitting. Gio pitched a heck of a ballgame. He hung in there. He wanted to go out that last inning, and it was going to be hard for me to hook him, no matter how many pitches he'd thrown. He felt like he could keep us in there, and he did."
Situational hitting has not been a strength of this Nationals team all season. The Nats are now batting .239 with runners in scoring position and their .690 team OPS in such situations is sixth-worst in the majors.
"Sometimes as a group, we're not aggressive early in the count for good pitches in the strike zone and then some of the young hitters go out of the strike zone and chase," Johnson said. "It's just maturity. The young guys need to mature as hitters in those situations. They're in a jam and we can be much more selective then."
In the first, Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche were guilty of failing to move the runners over or getting anyone in. In the second, it was Kurt Suzuki, Gonzalez and Denard Span who came up empty with two on. Then in the third, Werth, LaRoche and Ian Desmond went down in order after two reached to begin the inning.
"We're just not being either aggressive early or being overly aggressive and going out of the zone," Johnson said.
Gonzalez was one of the lone highlights of the afternoon; his seven innings allowed Johnson to only need to get one inning out of his bullpen. Drew Storen worked the eighth, marking his third straight game with an appearance, and needed just five pitches to retire the side.
The Nats needed this type of outing from Gonzalez given how beat up their bullpen was after yesterday's 15-inning game.
"Oh, I thanked him," Johnson said. "I said, 'We're really beat up in the bullpen,' and for him to give us seven really strong innings was a big lift to the ballclub. I love what I saw out of Storen. He's continuing to have really good outings, and that's a big plus."
Johnson could have opted to pinch-hit for Gonzalez in the sixth when he came up with two on and two out, but given that the Nats' relievers (not including Dan Haren) worked 13 innings last night, Johnson felt he needed Gonzalez to go deeper into the game.
"You want to (pinch-hit), but I can't risk maybe hurting some of my young arms in the 'pen," Johnson said. "I just can't do it. I know (Braves starter Julio Teheran) was on the ropes, but I didn't have the innings in the bullpen to do that."
The Nats got their lone run in the seventh when Werth singled to center, bringing in Rendon to make it 2-1. That also put runners at the corners with one out, but the rally came to a screeching halt when LaRoche struck out swinging and Werth was caught stealing to end the inning. The hit-and-run was a call that came from the dugout, not something Werth was trying on his own.
"I'm trying to get the winning run on second base and trying to stay out of a double play," Johnson said. "(LaRoche) was going to get a good pitch to hit. It was a fastball up, it might've been out of the zone, I don't know. We could've had bases loaded.
"But that was part of my frustration, too: Not getting them in when we've got them out there. But the guys we've got up at the plate are the guys we want up at the plate. That's the frustrating part."