When the Nationals claimed their second walk-off victory in three days on Sunday, they had every reason to ride a wave of optimism as far as it would carry them. That only increased on Monday with a 4-1, hassle-free victory over the National League West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Nationals were two games under .500, having won five of seven and beaten a pair of playoff-bound teams in the process. But three days later, whatever goodwill they generated has been washed out.
They boarded a plane for Cincinnati on Thursday night having lost three straight to the Diamondbacks, finishing a once-promising homestand at 5-5. The latest loss was also the ugliest, an 8-1 defeat against Arizona in which their bullpen allowed six runs. But even if they'd gotten shutout work from their relievers, it wouldn't have mattered.
The Nationals scored a combined three runs in those losses, going 0-3 in a stretch where their starting pitchers allowed eight runs in 20 innings.
The frustration was palpable in the Nationals' clubhouse on Thursday; reliever Tyler Clippard, who gave up three runs after allowing one since July 20, said he thinks the Nationals' pitchers have been "pressing a little bit" because their margin for error is so small. And manager Davey Johnson said he planned to have a few sit-down conversations on the road.
"We just seemed like we were a little flat," Johnson said. "We usually look like we want it. I give credit to the opposing pitcher. But I think a lot of it is, we just didn't go after it. I'm going to have a conversation with everyone on this ballclub offensively on this road trip. We're better than we showed. We took a lot of third strikes and 0-2 pitches that we could drive, and we weren't doing much."
And it didn't take Johnson long to point out the effect the offense is having on the pitching staff.
"When the bats are silent, the pitchers think they've got to be a little finer than normal," Johnson said. "That's not good. They end up throwing a lot of pitches trying to be too fine."
The Nationals did fall behind on an appetizing fastball from John Lannan, which Chris Young launched out of the park in the eighth inning. And Ryan Mattheus, again fighting tightness in his arm, struggled after Clippard. Then there was Henry Rodriguez, who finished the game with his usual dose of kerosene (five hits, three runs and two strikeouts in an inning).
But their offense has forced their pitching staff to be perfect the last three days. When that hasn't happened, the Nationals have lost.
"You put a little more pressure on yourself individually, which also gets contagious," outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "You find yourself wanting to hit a three-run homer with one guy on. ... Our pitching is doing a great job of keeping us in the game. It'd be nice to give them some run support."