For much of August, the Nationals' offense has finally been on an upward swing. Ryan Zimmerman had torn through one of the best stretches of his career, reaching base in 29 consecutive games and hitting in 28 of those. Michael Morse blossomed into a legitimate cleanup hitter, and Jayson Werth filled in behind him to give the Nationals a legitimate heart of the order for the first time all season.
Once Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa pulled out of twin slumps almost in sync last week, the Nationals were feeling as good about their offense as they had all season. It's funny how quickly that can change.
All of a sudden, they've scored 11 runs in their last five games. All of a sudden, they needed back-to-back homers just to end a shutout streak at 21 2/3 innings. Zimmerman couldn't reach base for the 30th straight game on Wednesday, Werth was out with a strained groin and Morse led off every inning in which he batted, rather than coming up to the plate in a position to do some damage.
At the end of a 4-2 loss to the Diamondbacks, the Nationals were back in a spot they haven't seen for a while, needing to shrug off their struggles on offense.
"Solo home runs aren't going to win many ballgames," said Jonny Gomes, who hit the second of back-to-back home runs off Daniel Hudson in the ninth inning. "You saw tonight. We've got to do a better job with runners in scoring position. But take the positives from it - the guys are on. We'll take that versus not having anyone on."
But by failing to drive runners in, they wasted a strong start for the second night in a row. The victim tonight was Livan Hernandez, who pitched into the eighth inning before giving up two runs, which scored when Henry Rodriguez entered the game. Hernandez recorded an out in the eighth inning for just the third time this year, but the Nationals couldn't make it count for anything.
They were certainly in the right to give credit to Hudson; the 23-year-old baffled them all night with a 93-mph fastball, sharp curveball and solid changeup, all delivered from an awkward arm angle that makes the ball look like it's almost coming out sideways.
"That pitch I hit was probably the only pitch I had to drive all night," Gomes said. "Cutter, slider, change, both sides of the plate, power. I tried to work him, and he was just making pitches when he had to. I'd love to have more success, but go back and look at the tape, and that was probably the only pitch I could have really drove."
The Nationals have run into their share of stellar pitching in this 10-game homestand; their first loss was to NL ERA leader Johnny Cueto, and they've faced Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, Joe Saunders and Ian Kennedy the last four days.
But after winning five of their first seven, they'll have to get a victory tomorrow to finish the homestand with a winning record. They'll need their offense to rebound for that to happen.
"The guy yesterday was 15-3, and the guy today had a three-something (ERA)," Zimmerman said. "That's the reason they're in first place. Some days, you're just going to get beat. He beat us today, and the guy yesterday beat us. That's what that team is known for - they don't score that many runs, they get big hits when they need them and their pitching staff kind of carries them. The last two games, that's what they've done to us."