SAN FRANCISCO - Maybe things will get easier for the Nationals than they were on Thursday, when every little unconverted chance was like a hornet's sting in a 5-4 loss to the San Francisco Giants. Maybe the surprising San Diego Padres, who have the National League's best record and play host to the Nationals for three games this weekend, will come crashing back to earth at exactly the right time.
But after a possible sweep turned into two losses against the Giants, it's also possible the Nationals are at a stretch where nothing will come to them without exertion.
Starter Craig Stammen called Thursday's loss to the Giants, during which the team left the bases loaded in the seventh inning and watched the Giants bloop their way to three runs in the bottom of that inning, a "missed opportunity." It again yanked the Nationals back to .500 heading into the middle leg of what looks like the toughest road trip still left on their schedule, and raised the question of whether this team is destined to play close, hard-fought games all year.
Here's the rest of the recap from Thursday, starting with the Golden Geese and Goose Eggs
Josh Willingham: Again, the left fielder was a key contributor for the Nationals, going 2-for-3 with a homer and a sacrifice fly. Willingham is also prone to long slumps, but his numbers (.285/.435/.535, nine homers and 31 RBI) are starting to round into the form of an All-Star. At the very least, you can call him the Nationals' best offensive player right now.
Alberto Gonzalez: He started for the first time since May 16, and went 2-for-3 with a run. Gonzalez also played a solid second base, turning a pair of double plays. He's hitting .333 for the season, and while he's not likely to be anything more than a utility player, he's proving himself to be a very good one. I thought he'd be the odd man out in the infield during spring training, but he's been a nice addition to the team off the bench.
Adam Dunn's bat: The first baseman is locked in at the plate right now - he has been for the better portion of a month - and he proved it when he blasted Barry Zito's first pitch to him out of the park on Thursday. Dunn came a couple feet from another homer on the play that was reviewed in the seventh inning, but was stuck with a ground-rule double instead. Still, he's come out of an early slump nicely, and is hitting as well as ever right now.
Adam Dunn's glove: On his error on the seventh inning, Dunn said he thought he had more time than he did to get to John Bowker's grounder. He said the ball wasn't hit as hard as he thought, so I'm not sure if he meant he could lay back and wait for it to get to him, or if he thought he had to rush the play. At any rate, though, he got caught in between staying back and charging it, and rather than squaring his body to the ball, made a backhanded attempt to snare it. It went under his glove, and Bowker scored later in the inning. Dunn has been passable at first base, but that's the kind of play that isn't second nature to him yet.
Ian Desmond: He went 0-for-4, twice leaving runners on third base. Desmond grounded into a double play in the fifth inning with Ryan Zimmerman on third, and struck out looking with Justin Maxwell on third in the seventh inning. Both at-bats cost the Nationals chances to add on to their lead, and soon after Desmond's strikeout, it was gone.
In Case You Missed It:
--The ground rule behind the Adam Dunn double-that-wasn't-quite-a-homer is this: If the ball hits the white cement at the top of the right-field wall at AT&T Park, it's a double. If it hits the green metal roof a few feet to the right, it's a homer. It's worth noting that there was a 19-mph right-to-left wind on Thursday, so it's possible Dunn's homer got pushed off track just enough to become a double. But even then, that should never have cost the Nationals a win on Thursday; there were opportunities to do just a little more.
--Sean Burnett threw Nate Schierholtz four sliders in the at-bat that brought in the GIants' first run in the seventh inning, and the one Schierholtz hit might have been the best of the four. Burnett put it on the lower outside corner of the plate, and Schierholtz made an impressive inside-out swing to punch it to center for a hit that scored Bowker. "I hung the second one, and he missed it," Burnett said. Of the fourth pitch, Burnett said, "It was a good pitch. It was actually off the plate. He stayed on it, and hit it up the middle. He did his job, and unfortunately, I didn't get the job done."
--The relay on Freddy Sanchez's two-run, go-ahead single in the seventh was as big a factor as any in why the Giants took the lead on the play. Willingham made a soft throw from left field on the play that Zimmerman didn't want to cut off, because it would have meant Andres Torres scored the go-ahead run easily. But it was too weak to get home in time for Carlos Maldonado to catch and tag out the speedy Torres.
1. I wrote in the game story about how the Nationals seem destined to play close games all year; seven of their last eight have been decided by three runs or less, and there's been a save in 30 of their 48 games this year. Do you agree with that, and what can the team do to break out of it? Do they need to add another bat, or is it just a matter of some players contributing a little more?
2. What did you make of Craig Stammen's start on Thursday. We haven't talked much about it, but he pitched 6 1/3 innings, allowing three runs (two earned) on five hits. He did make a mistake, though, when he threw a first-pitch fastball to Aubrey Huff over the middle of the plate, believing Huff wouldn't swing at the pitch. Huff did, blasting it to right for a home run. Still, it was one of Stammen's better outings on the road, and it came at a time when he and Luis Atilano both need to step up to avoid being bounced from the rotation in favor of Stephen Strasburg. What do you take from Thursday about Stammen's future?
3. How disappointing is it to lose two of three to the Giants when they're having their own offensive struggles and the Nationals' offense got to Barry Zito early on Thursday? Both of the Giants' wins were engineered somewhat by bloop base hits, and the Nationals' inability to add on runs cost them on Thursday. Going into a tough series in San Diego, does this feel, as Stammen said, like a missed opportunity.
Leave your answers to the Talking Points questions in the comments. I've got to pack up and head to the airport for my flight to San Diego. I'll have more before the Nationals-Padres game from there, and I'll be on Nats Xtra tonight around 9:50 p.m. Eastern time to talk about the rotation and what it might look like after Stephen Strasburg gets here.