Every day, win or lose, Nationals manager Jim Riggleman usually talks about how his team has yet to hit its stride. The reasons are simple - the Nationals are still playing without Ryan Zimmerman, and the players they have in the lineup aren't yet producing mass quantities of runs.
But the biggest reason cropped up again tonight, after going absent for most of the Nationals' 10-game homestand: Washington isn't playing its best baseball yet because its pitchers are still walking too many batters. On Monday night, that factor, and few others, cost the Nationals yet another chance to get two games above .500.
John Lannan and Brian Bruney each walked three batters in Monday's 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Chicago Cubs, who scored the winning run on Bruney's four-pitch, bases-loaded walk to Aramis Ramirez. On a windswept night at Wrigley Field, when Lake Michigan breezes turned back a couple home runs, the Nationals' walks took them down.
If it's a recurring problem, rather than an aberration caused by cold temperatures and difficulty gripping the ball, the Nationals' early-season success will be hard to replicate. In their 10-game homestand, during which the Nationals went 6-4, they walked just 26 batters. They walked 49 in the nine games before that, 44 of them unintentionally.
The walks were Lannan's downfall on a night where he made the best of a flagging repertoire and difficult weather. He got two double plays and lasted six innings, but walked five batters, including three in a row in the second inning.
"The last couple starts out there, I've had to labor a lot. I'm getting sick of it," Lannan said. "I wish I could just go out there and throw strong start to finish. I'm sick of having those crappy innings in the middle."
And Bruney, who the Nationals acquired from the Yankees in December knowing he had a reputation for wildness, has all but lost his setup role because of his control problems. Tyler Clippard, who's got a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.8-to-1, has effectively become the Nationals' eighth-inning choice over Bruney, and the only reason he didn't get the ball in the ninth inning on Monday was because Riggleman was trying to rest the right-hander.
So he went to Bruney in the ninth, and the hard-throwing righty survived. He allowed a leadoff single in the 10th, though, and walked Derrek Lee with one out. And after Marlon Byrd's twisting pop-up escaped Cristian Guzman for a single to load the bases, Bruney missed on four straight balls to Ramirez, ending the game.
"I try as hard as I can out there," Bruney said. "It's not a lack of effort thing. It wasn't my night. It was the only one throwing that baseball out there when the run scored, and I walked him in. I put this one on me."