On Tuesday night, the Nationals had one of those games, which have been so rare lately, where everything goes right. They brought Craig Stammen back from the minors, soaking up his feel-good return in the form of 7 1/3 innings of two-run ball. And their offense responded to a reconfigured lineup, surging for seven runs against the Braves, leading manager Jim Riggleman to remark how the game reminded the Nationals how well they could play.
If they got all that from Tuesday’s game, Wednesday’s 4-1 loss was a more sobering kind of reminder. The Nationals didn’t do anything all that badly against the Braves; they were just a little bit worse in every area of the game.
Where Braves starter Jair Jurrjens gave up just one run, J.D. Martin allowed three. The Nationals’ bullpen allowed an insurance run; Atlanta’s did not. And the offense, which looked so sharp on Tuesday, muted a couple rallies with double plays.
Despite a second straight night of solid defense, the Nationals had nothing else to show for themselves. They played a clean, crisp game, but the Braves did what good teams do, gradually tipping the game in their direction.
It’s all appropriate that it came after such an encouraging win, because it highlighted what the Nationals still don’t have. Their starting rotation is stocked with low-maintenance young pitchers (Martin, Stammen and Luis Atilano) who don’t beat themselves, but also don’t have dynamic enough stuff to win on nights where they’re not in premium form. Martin threw 37 pitches in the first inning on Wednesday night, and gave up hits to the eighth and ninth hitters in the fourth inning. If his curveball isn’t sharp - and it wasn’t great on Wednesday - he’s going to get nicked in those situations.
And the Nationals’ offense still isn’t consistently working well enough to redeem its pitchers in those situations. They did a nice job of stringing together a few hits to get Jurrjens out of the game after five innings, but were otherwise shut down by the young right-hander, who hadn’t pitched in two months because of a hamstring injury but showed on Wednesday he can still summon dynamic stuff when he needs to. He’s the kind of pitcher the Nationals still have too few of, and their struggling offense couldn’t seize upon the few opportunities he gave them.
They’ll come home to face two-time Cy Young winner Johan Santana, who they beat soundly in April. But Santana is 6-2 against them in his career, and a four-game series against the Mets won’t be an easy start to their longest (and possibly toughest) homestand of the year. Wednesday night found the Nationals still on this side of consistent winning baseball, and even when they do enough things reasonably well, it’s not enough to win on plenty of nights.