BALTIMORE - In the wake of another one-run loss - the eighth in 12 one-run games they've played this season - Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa said something interesting.
"You can get hits, get guys in scoring position, but in scoring position with two outs? That's tough," Espinosa said. "Runners in scoring position, less than two outs, you can hit a ground ball, hit a fly ball and get a runner in. But scoring position with two outs is a very tough thing."
It might be the best summation this season of what's plagued the Nationals' offense all year. When most of the cheap ways to score a run are removed, and trading a run for an out isn't an option, the Nationals simply haven't risen to the occasion. And in their 2-1 loss to the Orioles on Sunday, they cost Jordan Zimmermann a win and denied themselves a chance to get a badly-needed series win.
They outhit the Orioles eight to four, put 10 runners on base, had two balls from Roger Bernadina that came inches from leaving the park and lost another scoring chance - not to mention manager Jim Riggleman - on a rare call in the first inning when Bernadina was ruled out for bunting his leadoff single out of the batters' box. For whatever reason, when the Nationals had to get hits to drive men in, they couldn't.
They went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position on Sunday. For the season, with two outs and a man on third, they're hitting .172.
"We work as hard as any team I've been around in 24 years in the big leagues," said bench coach John McLaren, who managed the Nationals for most of the game after Riggleman was ejected by home plate umpire Todd Tichenor in the first inning. "Good things have got to start happening for us."
The thing is, it looked like Friday's 17-run outburst could have been a turning point for the Nationals. They followed that game up by scoring four runs the last two days, though, and they could lose another starter to injury; first baseman Adam LaRoche will get a second opinion on the torn labrum in his left shoulder in New York tomorrow.
On Sunday, they put enough men in scoring position, theoretically, to do enough to win. And Zimmermann, who allowed two runs in 6 1/3 innings, continued to be sharp on the mound, striking out five with a precise slider and a curveball that got more effective as he changed speeds with it. But the call against Bernadina cost them a run when Ian Desmond followed it with a double. Bernadina's third-inning double nearly cleared the right field fence. Nick Markakis made a great throw to hold Jayson Werth at third on Ivan Rodriguez's flyout in the fourth, and after Alex Cora drove in the Nationals' one run with an infield single, Markakis caught Bernadina's bases-loaded fly at the wall in right.
The Nationals can hope for those breaks to turn their way, but in between those bad bounces were back-to-back strikeouts to end the third, rally-killing groundouts in the fifth and sixth and the strike-'em-out, throw-'em-out double play the Orioles got to end the game after Bernadina took a 3-2 curveball on a hit-and-run and Matt Wieters gunned down Brian Bixler at second.
At 21-25, the Nationals fly to Milwaukee knowing this: Their problem is not setting themselves up to succeed. It's buckling down and coming through.
"These guys want it. They pull for each other. The team chemistry they've got, and the way they have each other's backs, it's amazing," McLaren said. "We just need to get to that stage where we get a bloop, find a hole and we take off. I think that day's coming. We just haven't gotten there yet."