Nationals’ defense better, but offense falters in 2-0 loss

On levels subtler than the final result of the Nationals’ opening day loss to the Atlanta Braves, there were signs that the team is progressing in the right direction.

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The Nationals didn’t make an error and had more than a few impressive defensive plays. They ran the bases well, with Jayson Werth going from first to third on a Ryan Zimmerman single to right and Danny Espinosa beating out an infield hit.

But the plain, concrete reason the Nationals lost 2-0 to the Braves on Thursday was because they couldn’t score any runs. Oh, their approach at the plate was good - they made Derek Lowe throw 105 pitches, 46 of which were balls, in 5 2/3 innings. Presented with chances to pull even with Atlanta, though, the Nationals couldn’t do it. Their first result of the 2011 season, on a damp, frigid day at Nationals Park, was a loss because their offense went cold.

“We had some opportunities,” Werth said. “We didn’t come through. All in all, we got the season started. The festivities on opening day were grand. Unfortunately, we were on the wrong side.”

The Nationals have hit Lowe well in the past, beating him in three of the five games in which they faced him last year. They got caught pounding his sinker into the ground Monday, hitting six groundouts and taking just three balls out of the infield against him. New leadoff hitter Ian Desmond, “a little geeked up” by his own admission, struck out twice in his first four at-bats and went 0-for-4.

The spot where the Nationals had the most chances, though, was with their new 4-5-6 stretch of Adam LaRoche, Michael Morse and Rick Ankiel. Those three went a combined 0-for-11, and both innings where the Nationals got two men on base ended with Morse at the plate.

“Derek Lowe got the ball down, and he’s getting strikes down there, too,” Morse said. “It’s tough when a pitcher’s throwing pitches and getting calls.”

The danger in the Nationals’ new approach, largely trading offense for defense by letting Adam Dunn leave in free agency and shipping Josh Willingham to Oakland, was that an already underwhelming offense wouldn’t have enough juice. They finished 14th in the National League with 655 runs last year, and that was with Dunn finishing second in the league with 38 homers.

Werth is hitting second in the lineup mostly because the team doesn’t have a reliable on-base presence at the top of the lineup, and he pointed out after the game that he could wind up hitting lower if Espinosa - who had a .365 on-base percentage in the minors and went 2-for-3 Thursday - gets comfortable enough to move up the lineup.

The Nationals could wind up needing him lower in the order. An offense that feels a little light will only be good enough if players like Espinosa, Desmond and Morse improve this year. Thursday’s game did a pretty good job of showing the shortcomings.

“We’ll just kind of get a feel for it, see if we feel everybody’s comfortable in those slots (in the lineup),” manager Jim Riggleman said. “Today, I don’t know that it was going to make a difference who hit where, the way Lowe was pitching today. When you really pitch good, you shut down good hitting. I think we’ve got a good hitting ballclub, but good pitching shut us down today.”