The term "dog days of summer" is made for nights like these, when a baseball team with little of consequence left in its season is playing games simply because the schedule dictates that it must. Motivation comes from abstract places, and some nights, it's not there at all.
Was it surprising, then, that the Nationals played one of their worst games of the year on Monday night, losing 9-1 to the Cubs after finding out their best pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, was headed to the disabled list for the second time in a month? Maybe not. But it was concerning enough to trip all the alarms.
The Nationals had just three hits against Cubs starter Casey Coleman, a day after being shut out by the Phillies. They were effectively out of the game by the third inning, when Chicago battered Livan Hernandez for five runs. The three-hour, eight-minute game had a haggard feel despite the brisk weather at Nationals Park, and with 37 more to go before the conclusion of the 2010 season, the Nationals shifted into troubleshooting mode.
"Our guys play hard. They play with intensity. But it's a 162-game schedule, and you've got to play 162 games," manager Jim Riggleman said. "Just our body language on the field, it allowed us to have an aura hanging over us that it's just not happening for us tonight. I guess it's going to happen a time or two a year. But when it happens, it gets addressed."
Whether it was Livan Hernandez throwing 121 pitches in 4 1/3 innings, laboring all night after he stopped getting strike calls on the outside corner of the plate from umpire Tim Timmons, or Willie Harris laying winded in right field after he missed a diving attempt at Alfonso Soriano's liner, the signs of an embarrassing effort were everywhere.
The loss dropped the Nationals to 53-72, tying the furthest they've been under .500 this season. Since a 20-15 start, they're 33-57. Projected over 162 games, that would get the Nationals 59 wins - the same total they've had each of the last two years. Essentially, this has been the 2008 and 2009 teams with a 20-15 start dressing up the record.
"We've got to come together as a unit and really try to finish this up strong and not give up on ourselves, even though the thing's kind of crumbling right now," center fielder Nyjer Morgan said. "We've got to be true professionals here."
Said Harris: "It just seemed like everybody was dead. I'm not trying to take anything away from their pitcher. I think he deserves everything he gets in that game. But at the same time, we need to give a better effort."
The Nationals finished 33-42 under Riggleman last season, winning their final seven games of the season and putting a better face on a year they started 26-61. Riggleman made it clear he's expecting the team's intensity to match that this year.
"That's what happened last year, and we passed the test," Riggleman said. "We played hard all the way through, and that's what we're going to do this year. And if we don't, we'll change things around to where we do."