The Nationals, as manager Jim Riggleman is fond of saying, were right there on Friday night against the St. Louis Cardinals. For the third time in four series, they're playing a team contending for a playoff spot, and they were right there.
At some point, though, that stops becoming a positive and starts becoming a problem. The Nationals were right there with a chance to beat the Cardinals for the second time in as many nights, but they scored two runs on 12 hits and left 14 men on base. They had a chance to rally from a 4-0 deficit, but Nyjer Morgan took too big of a lead in the eighth inning and got picked off. Scott Olsen gave them a shot to win, his only major error a flat slider to Albert Pujols in the first inning, but the Nationals made two errors in the second inning and the Cardinals scored two unearned runs.
There's a relatively thin line between good baseball teams and bad ones, and it's crossed by execution. The Nationals lost 4-2 to the Cardinals on Friday night, falling for the eighth time in 11 games, mostly because they didn't grab the chances presented to them so many times.
"The opportunities are out there," Riggleman said. "I certainly would rather be out there and not have them come in than not be out there at all, because it means we're competitive with tough pitchers and tough ballclubs that we're facing. But it can get a little frustrating."
Four of those eight losses are by two runs or less, and in seven of them, the Nationals haven't scored more than two runs.
On more than one occasion, the Nationals' starting pitcher has been the victim of the lack of offense, and Olsen certainly was on Friday. He got burned by his fielders, too; the Nationals originally had been charged with three errors in the third inning until a scoring change rule Matt Holliday's grounder a single instead of an Alberto Gonzalez error. But Olsen was able to prevent the big inning he's allowed on several occasions this year, getting a double play against Pujols and striking out Felipe Lopez to end the third.
"Two is still a crooked number, but it could have gotten a lot worse," Olsen said. "With those two men on and Pujols coming up, it could have gotten real ugly real quick. But we made the double play, and minimized the damage from that inning. It kind of carried over to the rest of the game."
Were the Nationals in the business of cashing in on near-successes - "That, and a couple dollars, will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks," Riggleman joked - it might count for something.
But they left the bases loaded three times, and Morgan's pickoff came right before Willie Harris hit a solo homer to put the Nationals on the board.
"It's a four-nothing ballgame, and I should have just had him not going," Riggleman said. "I didn't have him going, but I should have made it very clear to him that it's four-nothing. So that one's on me."
Whoever took the blame for it, it was one of a large number of moments where the Nationals had a chance to win a game, and didn't.