There have been plenty of times this year where the Nationals have faced a playoff-caliber team, matched up well against them and walked away feeling encouraged about the direction in which they're heading. They're 6-8 against the Phillies, who have the best record in baseball. They're 7-8 against the wild card-leading Braves, went 3-3 against the Brewers, took four of six against the Cardinals and went 4-3 against the defending world champion Giants.
But for the season, the Nationals are 11 games under .500. Games like the one they played Saturday night are the underbelly of that record.
Before an irksome crowd of 30.935 at Nationals Park, they committed two errors in a 9-3 loss to the Astros, who have the worst record in baseball. The defeat guaranteed they can do no better than split the season series with Houston, and at present, the Nationals are 11-14 this season against the four last-place teams they've played (Baltimore, Florida, Houston and San Diego).
They've been unable to separate themselves from bad teams, and in the process, they've negated some of the progress they've made against good ones.
Few times this year have they looked worse against a poor opponent than they did on Saturday night. John Lannan had the third-shortest outing of his career, lasting just 2 1/3 innings and allowing six runs, four of them earned. Lannan fielded a swinging bunt by Jose Altuve and made an errant throw home, leading to two runs in the third inning, and couldn't get to a suicide squeeze from Carlos Corporan on the next at-bat. He was gone after that.
"He just didn't have any location," manager Davey Johnson said. "I didn't like the pitch selection. I didn't like the location. It's just one of those days. He's been real consistent all year. That was one of his few (bad) ones. It sure gets unsightly when it happens."
Lannan got hurt by a few singles up the middle, and the Astros' six-run third got started after Michael Morse misplayed a ball in left field and saw it get stuck under the padding against the left field wall. It came at the end of what's been an adventuresome week for Morse in left field, to say the least.
"Next time, I'll have to try to throw my foot under there or something," Morse joked. "I feel great. I feel comfortable, and I feel like it's my position."
Said manager Davey Johnson: "That's going to happen. That's part of the new position. But it's not affecting his hitting."
Morse proved that in the sixth inning with one of the more impressive home runs he's hit all year. He sat on a fastball from Wandy Rodriguez, ripping a line drive to right field on an 0-1 pitch low and away. It was his 27th homer of the year; 14 of those have landed in center field or right field, according to Fangraphs.
The Nationals got their other two runs on an impressive at-bat from rookie Chris Marrero, who fished out a 1-2 curveball for a two-run single in the fourth inning. But for the 14th time in 18 games, they scored four runs or less. They've won just one of those games.
"I think it's a learning experience for some people," Morse said. "Some guys that just got here, I think they're getting their feet wet. As a team, I think we're just keep trying to put it together. Some days we're having good days pitching, and we're not hitting. Some days we're hitting, and we're not pitching. We've just got to get on the right track."