The Nationals had two outs in the bottom of the first inning on Monday night against the Cardinals when Craig Stammen made one of the most treacherous moves a pitcher can make: He walked Matt Holliday, extending the Cardinals' inning into the jaws of Albert Pujols, who was hitting cleanup for the first time in seven years and, because of that, came up with a runner on base.
All things considered, what Pujols did next could have been much worse. He singled up the middle, moving Holliday to second. But the Cardinals followed with three more hits, including a David Freese triple off Willie Harris' glove in right that scored two runs.
"The first-inning walk was the key. He got the first two hitters out, and then the walk," manager Jim Riggleman said. "That seems to have bit him a couple times this year already."
As I wrote in the game story, the Nationals have now lost four straight, and could see that stretch to five if they can't beat Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter tonight. This team has excelled at staying out of long slumps this year, which good teams can usually do. But they're in danger of falling back to .500 and coming home on a losing streak. Tonight, then, is another important game for them.
On with the awards:
Ian Desmond: Notified just before the game he was starting with Adam Dunn still battling flu symptoms, Desmond responded with his first four-hit game, going 4-for-4 at the plate, and also made a couple of slick plays at shortstop. It was a big contribution, especially with the heart of the order struggling.
Adam Kennedy: The infielder was also affected by the Dunn scratch, moving from second base to first. But he was the Nationals' other cog on Monday, going 2-for-4 and scoring a run. He's been hitting better as of late, and has been a solid contributor in the field.
Roger Bernadina: With a 1-for-3 night, Bernadina raised his average to .306, and also made a couple of impressive running catches while filling in for Nyjer Morgan in center field. He saved a base hit with a grab on Holliday in the fifth inning, and leaped at the wall to save an extra-base hit, and a run, off Colby Rasmus' drive in the sixth. He's had an impressive road trip, and it might be this stretch of games that puts Bernadina on the road to playing every day.
Craig Stammen: He rebounded nicely after the first inning, and didn't allow another run in the final five innings he pitched. But Stammen's first inning put a slumping offense in a big hole, and the Nationals could never quite recover. The walk to Holliday started everything, and especially on the road, Stammen's found trouble more than he should.
Nationals' heart of the order: Washington's No. 2 through No. 5 hitters went 0-for-15 with a walk, leaving all the run production to the bottom of the order. Three of the four hitters batting in those spots (Cristian Guzman, Ryan Zimmerman and Ivan Rodriguez) are hitting over. 300, But when they're all struggling at the same time, it's tough for the Nationals to win, especially with Dunn's absence shrinking the lineup.
In Case You Missed It:
--Hitting coach Rick Eckstein was ejected from the game by home plate umpire Gerry Davis in the fifth inning for arguing balls and strikes after Stammen struck out looking. This isn't the first time Eckstein's been tossed from the dugout; in fact, he's got a bit of a reputation for letting the umpires know what he thinks. But it points to a larger frustration the Nationals have had with umpires this year; they've groused on several occasions about getting squeezed at the plate.
--Riggleman has said many times that Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is one of his mentors and idols, but in the seventh inning, he got the better of La Russa with a little matchup chicanery. With left-hander Trever Miller in the game, Riggleman pinch-hit for the left-handed Willie Harris with the right-handed Alberto Gonzalez. Rather than taking his chances that Miller could get the slap-hitting Gonzalez with two outs and runners on second and third, La Russa swapped Miller for right-hander Jason Motte. Then Riggleman came back with Adam Dunn, getting a lefty-righty matchup for his slugger. But then Motte struck out Dunn when the first baseman swung at an eye-level 3-2 fastball. So maybe La Russa had things worked out all along.
--Josh Willingham fought Kyle McClellan through a 14-pitch at-bat in the eighth inning, fouling off nine pitches before finally striking out on a 3-2 pitch. Even when he's struggling at the plate, Willingham is one of the best at working counts.
1. What did you think of Drew Storen's big-league debut? He hit the second batter he faced, but didn't allow a hit and got out of the inning on a gutsy inside sinker to strike out Holliday on a full count. He threw first-pitch strikes to three of four batters, and threw seven of 13 pitches for strikes overall. Let me know your thoughts on the debut.
2. Is it just me, or do the Nationals need to extend the lineup by one more batter? Now, I realize part of that is Adam Dunn being sick, and Jim Riggleman said he was unlikely to play again tonight. But if the Nationals had another decent run producer, their lineup could really be formidable when it's going well, and capable of riding out some of these slumps a little better. That might come from Bernadina or Desmond eventually. But do you agree that the Nationals could use another bat?
3. The 40-game mark of the season comes tonight. If the Nationals lose, they'd hit the unofficial quarter pole at 20-20, on a five-game losing streak. All things considered, would you be happy with that, or does the start not seem quite as good when they were sitting at 20-15 a few days ago?
Leave your thoughts on the Talking Points in the comments section, and I'll have a few more things later today.