The final line score on Saturday was striking enough: one run, two hits, no errors, 12 men left on base.
Behind it was a mostly silent locker room full of frustrated players, having just slogged through four weeks of offensive futility and knowing that without third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, they could be in for six more.
The Nationals’ 2-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Saturday featured a couple of decisions from manager Jim Riggleman that backfired and a sinker from John Lannan that crept back over the plate, into perfect position for Eli Whiteside to hit it out of the park. But the main problem Saturday was an offense that continues to feel the absence of Zimmerman. There have been few times where that’s been as obvious as Saturday.
After finding out Zimmerman would miss the next six weeks with surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle, the Nationals went out and faced a generous Giants pitching staff that issued nine walks and hit three batters. Only one of those players scored - and Ian Desmond would have been out, too, if the Giants hadn’t made a throwing error on a pickoff play that allowed him to take second base and a wild pitch that advanced him to third.
Saturday’s game was eminently winnable. Instead, it felt like a slow, inevitable slide toward a loss. And it turned out to be an historic one: the Giants became the first team in the modern era to issue nine or more walks, hit three or more batters and allow less than two runs in a game.
“It sucks,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who struck out with the bases loaded to end the game. “Another outstanding pitching performance (from Lannan, who allowed a run in 6 2/3 innings). We have opportunities - me in particular, a couple times - and didn’t come up with anything.”
The team is hitting .226, getting on base at a .305 clip and slugging .353 this season. The Nationals’ only player with a hit was center fielder Rick Ankiel, who had two. And LaRoche’s strikeout was just one of three times where they left the bases loaded.
“We’re right there. We’ve got opportunities and a little luck sometimes goes a long way,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “We’re just on the wrong side of it right now.”
There were certainly actions on Saturday that played into it, too - after Jonathan Sanchez walked three batters in the first inning, Michael Morse swung at the first pitch he saw and lined out. And in the seventh inning, Whiteside, who is a career .153 hitter off left-handers and hit just his second career homer off a lefty in the third inning, was intentionally walked so Lannan could face Aubrey Huff. The pinch hitter’s numbers against Lannan weren’t much better - he was 2-for-9 against him in his career - but with the bases now loaded, Lannan’s walk to Huff brought in the deciding run.
“The right thing probably to do was just bring (Tyler) Clippard in to face Whiteside,” Riggleman said. “Every now and then, you make a decision for your starting pitcher. If I pull John there, he’s got a no-decision or a loss. If I let him try to work through it, he’s got a no-decision or a win. It didn’t work. The right decision to make was to just bring Clippard in, and whether Clip gets him or not, that’s the way we go with that. I should have done that. That’s one that’s on me.”
But the decision to walk Whiteside was curious, too, since the fact he’d homered earlier in the game meant the odds of him burning a left-hander again were slim. Riggleman said the earlier homer made him decide not to pitch to the backup catcher.
“Huff’s a great hitter. He’s a great player, but there’s a reason he didn’t start that game today,” Riggleman said. “Lannan was pitching, he didn’t start that game. I just felt that two runners were out there, Whiteside had homered earlier. I didn’t want him throwing to Whiteside there. If we get the bases loaded and Huff is there, with the way John’s throwing, I felt OK about that. It’s a decision the manager made.”
Riggleman also burned Laynce Nix, perhaps his best pinch hitter, to get the Giants to put in a left-handed pitcher in the eighth inning, and pulled him back for Brian Bixler instead of sacrificing left-hander Alex Cora there. All the decisions, though, wouldn’t have mattered so much if the Nationals had hit.
And the question is when they’ll start to do it. LaRoche said he thinks the failures at the plate have gotten in the Nationals’ heads “a few times” already, forcing them to press at the plate. Things seem to be snowballing, and without Zimmerman, the effect will be even harder to stop.
“When you’re not scoring runs and leaving guys out there, it starts to wear on you as a team,” LaRoche said. “It makes every one of those opportunities seem more important than it is. It’s nice when everybody’s hitting, because you’re getting it done, and different guys are getting it done. Right now, we’re just kind of standing still.”