The Nationals faced a tough enough challenge Tuesday night with Zack Greinke on the mound for the Dodgers. That they wound up having to face the Cy Young frontrunner without the services of Bryce Harper was downright unfair.
The absence of Harper from the Nationals' lineup due to a sore left knee proved significant during the 5-0 loss in Los Angeles, but perhaps more so from a defensive standpoint than an offensive one. Then again, it might not have mattered how well the Nats played in the field; you still can't win a game without scoring a run.
So now the Nationals find themselves 2 1/2 games behind the Mets in the NL East — not to mention 5 1/2 games behind the Cubs for the NL's final wild card berth — heading into Wednesday night's series finale. And now they have to beat Clayton Kershaw to emerge with a series victory and avoid falling even farther back in the race.
Before looking ahead, a look back at some key points from Tuesday's loss...
Joe Ross had his first off-night in the big leagues
It is remarkable to consider that Ross hadn't allowed more than three runs in any of his first seven big-league starts, not to mention the fact he had walked only four total batters since joining the Nationals rotation.
Well, both streaks ended Tuesday night. Ross was charged with five runs in a career-low 4 2/3 innings. And he walked four batters in the game, included two in a row at one point.
That lack of pinpoint command proved Ross' undoing, and not only in the form of the walks. His command within the strike zone was off as well, leading to the biggest blast of the game: Yasiel Puig's 2-run homer in the bottom of the fourth. It came on a hanging slider, truly one of Ross' only bad pitches since he has reached the majors.
How rare was that mistake? Well, Ross faced 102 right-handed batters in the big leagues before surrendering his first extra-base hit to one of them. Yes, Puig was the first to do it to him, in career start No. 8. That's nuts.
As stated, Ross was charged with five runs in the game. He very easily could've been charged with only one, though: Puig's homer. That's because...
The Nats' defense let down their starter
Puig's homer came with Andre Ethier standing on third base? How did Ethier get there? By legging out a triple off the center-field wall, despite Michael Taylor's best effort to throw him out at third base. Umpire C.B. Bucknor actually did initially call Ethier out after Taylor's fantastic throw, but the call was overturned after replays showed Ethier sliding around Yunel Escobar's tag.
Ethier, of course, gets some credit for his nifty move. But Escobar gets some blame as well for not putting himself in the best possible position to make that tag, which ultimately led to one of the Dodgers' runs.
Escobar's misplay was far more damaging to the Nationals than Clint Robinson's misplay one inning later. Pressed into emergency right field duties with Harper sidelined, Robinson wasn't able to track down Puig's blooper into shallow right with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth.
There's no way to say definitively that Harper would've made the play. But it's safe to say this: He certainly would have had a better chance of making the play than Robinson, a career first baseman who had never spent an inning in the outfield until this season.
This is where the Nationals' current roster situation kills them. Denard Span is already on the DL, showing no signs of returning from a back injury anytime soon. That forces Taylor to play center field and only center field, unable to serve as the club's fourth outfielder for such emergencies as this. The Nats don't really have a fourth outfielder at the moment. They have Robinson and Tyler Moore, each natural first basemen who have learned how to play corner outfield positions over the years. They also have Danny Espinosa, a career middle infielder who earlier this season made his left field debut.
This isn't an ideal situation, and it underscores the importance of Harper being healthy enough to play. Not to mention the significant loss of Span.
Jayson Werth is really struggling
While Ryan Zimmerman has been red-hot since returning from the DL and Anthony Rendon has shown signs of life, Werth continues to struggle at the plate.
The veteran outfielder did homer on Sunday in D.C., and he did drive in a couple runs Monday in L.A., but in 14 games overall since returning from a broken wrist, he is now hitting a paltry .160 (8-for-50) while drawing only two walks (leading to a .185 on-base percentage).
It's one thing for Werth's power stroke to take some time to re-emerge. The lack of walks, though, is disturbing for a guy who has made a living working the count as well as anybody in the game.
MORE NATIONALS: Puig's 5 RBIs help Greinke and Dodgers beat Nationals 5-0