DENVER — Davey Johnson didn’t have an answer. He couldn’t find an explanation for why his team, the best in the National League East had failed to make another below-average pitcher look like one. Couldn’t reason how, against a team that was struggling to get their starters even to the fifth inning, his team allowed one with an 8.56 ERA to throw five crisp ones and allow just two runs.
Monday night it was Jeff Francis, a pitcher who’d made just three starts this season before the Nationals arrived and allowed almost a run per inning. Sunday it was Baltimore’s Jake Arrieta, an underachieving right-hander with good stuff who’d only recently escaped his banishment to the bullpen out of sheer necessity.
A few games before that it was Tampa’s Chris Archer, a rookie making his major league debut who came in averaging 5.3 walks per nine innings in Triple-A and needed only 82 pitches in six innings against the Nationals. The Nationals couldn’t beat any of them.
“We’ve faced some pitchers that everybody jumps,” Johnson said. “They’ve looked like Sandy Koufax over there.”
For the 37th time in 71 games, the Nationals scored three runs or less Monday night. As their recent stretch of games has shown, often times, that won’t be enough. After starting June 9-2, the Nationals are 3-7 in their last 10. Their all-world pitching staff is still that. Their offense is simply showing its weak spots.
“A lot of times, pitchers are as good as we make ‘em as an offense,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, one of three starters to go hitless on the 100-degree evening. “There’s nights you go out and no matter what you’re doing, the guy’s just got it. You’re going to run into those. They’re on. But (Monday) we couldn’t wait.”
“It seems like guys with bigger ERAs seem to go pretty deep against us and give up one or two runs,” he added, his displeasure with the opportunity missed on Monday evident. “We haven’t taken advantage of that. We haven’t been scoring lots of runs. We’re winning some games. But the offense, we all need to step it up.”
The missed chances to lament on Monday at hitter-friendly Coors Field were plentiful. After many hitters spent a large portion of their flight from Baltimore to Denver — a trip that was detoured briefly to Colorado Springs — talking approach, strategy and philosophy, the Nationals left eight runners on base. They were 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position and they failed to come up big in potential rally situations on a consistent basis. Ryan Zimmerman drove in their first run. Stephen Strasburg brought home their second with his fifth extra-base hit of the season. Jesus Flores was alone in the box score with three hits.
The game for Strasburg collapsed in the sixth inning after a lead-off triple was followed by a dangerous mistake. With the Nationals up 2-1, the pitch was 95 mph. It was intended to be a sinking fastball. It was high, inside, and Marco Scutaro couldn’t get out of its way. He ducked, lowered his head into his shoulders as the pitch barreled toward him but it was no use.
Strasburg hit Scutaro flush in the helmet with his 69th pitch Monday night. And neither was the same after impact.
Scutaro went down immediately, he lay flat on his back near the batters box. Strasburg took off his hat, his face looking ill from what one of his pitches had done. Scutaro got up on his own and was attended to by a trainer, appearing alert and speaking but was removed from the game. He walked off the field under his own power and the Rockies listed him as day-to-day.
“It happens,” Strasburg said. “It’s part of baseball. You try and get in. Obviously you never want to hit a guy in the head but it happens.”
It took Strasburg 28 more pitches to get out of the inning. The triple he’d allowed to Dexter Fowler before Scutaro was struck scored. The pinch runner for Scutaro, Chris Nelson, scored.
“It just seems like they were just hitting it right beyond our gloves basically,” Strasburg said. “They weren’t trying to get too big. They were just trying to take what was given to them and, regardless of how bad it looked, they got some hits.”
Some, but not a lot. For the Nationals lately, some has become far too many to overcome.
“They just outplayed us,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who tripled off his brother-in-law Josh Roenicke in their first-ever meeting. “Simple as that. They just beat us. I hate to say that, but I feel like when we were at the bottom playing teams in first place, we rose to the occasion. We’ve just got to turn it up a little bit.
“Someone’s got to get hot. Hitting is contagious. Once one guy starts to absolutely murder the ball, everyone’s going to start doing it. If you’ve got a bunch of guys around .250 you’re just waiting for one guy to get going and start the train.”
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