Nats shut out for eighth time in 29 games, fall back to .500 (updated)

PITTSBURGH - Today’s game - aired exclusively on Facebook as part of Major League Baseball’s new arrangement with the social media giant - was viewed by only a fraction of the fans who usually watch Nationals games on traditional television.

Those who didn’t tune in via their laptops or smartphones, though, didn’t really need to see firsthand what happened. They’d already seen this game countless times this season.

gio-gonzalez-gray miami.jpgThe Nationals got a quality start, this time from Gio Gonzalez. They put some runners on base against a mostly anonymous Pirates pitching staff. And they failed to score a run.

Yes, for the eighth time in their last 29 games, the Nationals were shut out. They put up a fight, but that’s no real consolation after a 2-0 loss in the latest ballgame that was right there for the taking but wasn’t accepted by a team that simply has given too many of these away through a torturous stretch of a season that remains stuck in neutral.

“Consistency is the name of the game,” said manager Davey Martinez, whose lineup has rarely fit that ideal description. “You just got to be consistent. We’ve seen a lot. One day we hit and score a lot, and one day we don’t. So we’ve just got to get consistent.”

After winning three straight from the Marlins late last week, the Nats dropped that series finale and now lost two-of-three to a Pirates club positioning itself to be a seller in the coming weeks before the July 31 trade deadline.

They’re back at the .500 mark at 46-46, temporarily six games back in the National League East with the Phillies and Braves both playing later this evening.

“I know these guys are busting their tail,” Gonzalez said. “They’re busting their tail for everyone. And you never question anybody’s integrity here. We play our hearts out.”

After a ragged month-plus on the mound working with inexperienced catchers, Gonzalez must have been thrilled to take the mound today and find Matt Wieters behind the plate for the first time since the latter returned from hamstring surgery. Those two made for an especially effective battery earlier in the season, with Gonzalez posting a 2.25 ERA in five starts with Wieters catching as opposed to a 4.39 mark in 13 starts with Pedro Severino, Spencer Kieboom and Miguel Montero.

The comfort level was apparent from the get-go. Gonzalez posted two quick zeroes on the scoreboard on a scant 18 pitches, an especially encouraging sign for a Nationals team desperate to get some length from its underachieving rotation.

“He was able to locate when he needed to,” Wieters said. “It’s big for him to get aggressive and get them swinging. He did that today.”

Gonzalez’s lone mistake, if you can call it that, came in the bottom of the third. He threw a 2-1 changeup at the knees to Starling Marte, who managed to go down and drive the ball over the center field fence and into the shrubbery that sits in front of the batter’s eye.

In hindsight, the location of the pitch wasn’t necessarily the problem. It was the selection and the velocity (86 mph) of the pitch.

“It was just too firm, 86,” Gonzalez said.

“It was probably a bad call on my part,” Wieters said. “I knew he was probably sitting a little soft on Gio. That’s why we went with three fastballs first. He was still able to hit that changeup. It was middle (of the zone) but it was still down. It wasn’t a terrible pitch. He’s a professional hitter. We just didn’t quite get him engaged enough on the fastball in before we went with the changeup.”

That proved to be the lone blemish on Gonzalez’s pitching line for the day. He went six innings, allowed only those two runs, threw 56-of-89 pitches for strikes and gave the Nationals what they needed from him.

“That’s huge for me,” the left-hander said. “That’s a great start for me in the right direction.”

But it would mean little if the Nationals couldn’t score a couple of runs and take advantage of the quality start.

As has too often been the case the last three-plus months, they gave themselves opportunities to score runs and did not convert those opportunities. They drew a pair of two-out walks in the first, but Matt Adams flied out to the warning track. They got a leadoff double from (of all people) Gonzalez in the third, but the top of the order failed to advance him past second base, with a flyout and two lineouts.

“At this point, if I focus on the results, then I’m not where I need to be,” said Adams, who went 0-for-4 despite two flyouts to the track and a lineout. “I went out there today and put together three out of four good ABs, put some good swings on balls. It is what it is.”

Bryce Harper drew a leadoff walk in the fourth but advanced only 90 feet. He came up with a chance to do something big - two out, runners on the corners - in the fifth but struck out on a 1-2 high fastball from Trevor Williams.

This is how things continued to go all afternoon. The Nationals would put a runner or two on base, but they wouldn’t be able to get him home. Only one so far as reached third base: Adam Eaton in the fifth, just prior to the Harper strikeout.

“Individually, the guys hit the ball here and there,” Martinez said. “But (the issue) is more like our situational hitting. Runners on second base. Sometimes you’ve just got to move the ball.”

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