The words came out of manager Davey Johnson’s mouth firmly and knowingly. Hours before the Washington Nationals would take the field against the New York Yankees in a 7-2 loss, Johnson uttered lines that would prove prophetic.
“When you play the American League East division, you have to have offense,” Johnson said, his gaze unflinching from a crowded room of a reporters.
“Believe me. They spend the money in the offseason on designated hitters. It’s harder to pitch against the American League East than probably any division in baseball.”
The stage was then set for the Nationals to show their manager that their recent surge in offense on the previous undefeated six-game road trip was not just a happy coincidence.
They were one of two first-place teams looking to extend a winning streak to seven when Gio Gonzalez took the mound just after 7 p.m Friday night. An announced 41,406 packed Nationals Park. They cheered with every crack of the bat, every fastball that Gonzalez blazed past the Yankees‘ first three batters.
Then they went out and put up nine mostly futile offensive innings.
They left seven runners on base, went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, struck out 12 times — their 22nd game with 10 or more strikeouts — and had Phil Hughes on the ropes early but never could deliver the knockout punch. The Yankees, however, delivered theirs in the seventh inning. Chasing Gonzalez from the game, they quickly saw 2-1 turn into 6-1 against Brad Lidge and, ultimately, put it well out of reach.
“We opened the door for them, and that’s what happens,” Johnson said after his team lost just its third game in June. “We had opportunities and we just didn’t capitalize. We had men on base early in the ballgame. The right guys up. Just didn’t deliver.”
As the Nationals players stood at their lockers after the game, having to answer questions about a loss for the first time in more than a week, the word most often used was “mistakes.”
“We were right there with them,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, his double play in the third inning killing the bases-loaded opportunity and their best offensive chance of the evening. “It was just a couple mistakes.”
“You want to win every night,” added third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, his view in the seventh the best for Derek Jeter’s bases-loaded, two-run dribbler that Desmond got to in the hole, only to bounce the throw to first and see Adam LaRoche whiff at it. “But tonight they out-executed us and we made a couple mistakes and it hurt us.”
The Nationals are still getting used to playing on the type of stage that was set for them Friday night. Their game was broadcast not only locally but nationally. Their park was swarming with reporters and dignitaries and their crowd was the eighth largest in the park’s history.
Before the game, Zimmerman called the Nationals being young and “inexperienced at winning,” to describe their even-keeled demeanor at treating each series, each game, the same. But their performance then fell a little flat, not rising to the level of anticipation around them, especially after allowing Hughes to wriggle out of the third inning.
Desmond’s single in the sixth, a blip in an otherwise robust sea of outs, was the team’s only baserunner from the third inning until a mini-rally in the ninth. And while Gonzalez settled in to make it to the start of the seventh, his pitch count was inflated early. He averaged nearly 20 pitches per inning in the game’s first three frames.
“I felt like I was still in the game,” Gonzalez said, a leadoff single by Andruw Jones in the seventh ending his night at 109 pitches. “I still gave my team a chance to win. I got into the seventh. I could’ve easily gotten myself out of that game in the third and fourth innings.”
Even as silence pervaded their clubhouse and players quietly dressed and left, required to be back there for a 1:05 p.m. game Saturday, it was a different frustration than in years past. One loss doesn’t change the Nationals’ stature, regardless of how hyped a game it might have been.
“We’re feeling great about where we’re at, obviously,” Lidge said, his own outing (three earned runs while recording one out) lamentable for the inches that separated effective from inefficient. “I think tonight, maybe, we were a little flat.
“We did such a good job on the road trip that we’re expecting to win every single game — and that’s great. That’s the expectations you want. But I think we just had one of those nights. A lot of ground balls just kind of fell in. Hits that weren’t really hit well dropped in. As a result of that, they scored some runs. You have to tip your hat to them sometimes, too.”