CINCINNATI -- The Nationals couldn't do much against right-hander Johnny Cueto, who was overpowering and helped the Reds blank Washington, 1-0, at Great American Ball Park on Saturday afternoon.
Cueto pitched seven innings, scattering four hits and striking out nine. Washington did have opportunities to score but couldn't get the run home. The team went 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position and stranded seven on base.
"Cueto is a great pitcher. He executed everything he does. Sometimes you have to tip your cap and play the game," Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper said.
Harper initiated a game-tying scoring opportunity by drawing a one-out walk in the seventh. Wilson Ramos followed and reached base on an infield single, but Harper decided to advance to third base and was caught in a rundown and tagged out between second and third. Kevin Frandsen then flied out to right fielder Jay Bruce to end the threat.
When asked if Harper was smart to go to third, manager Matt Williams said, "No. If the ball gets away from the first baseman or if there is an errant throw, [Harper] can make it. He didn't have a good enough jump. Generally, you see that when guys are on the move, when they are running. ... [Harper] is aggressive. He was trying to make something happen. He just got caught."
It was Harper's second baserunning mistake of the game. In the second inning, he was doubled off first base after Ramos hit a long fly ball to right-center field. Harper, who thought the ball was going to go over Bruce's head for at least a double, had rounded second and was unable to beat Bruce's throw on his way back to first base.
"Guys hit balls like that in this yard all the time," Harper said. "It usually hits off the wall or goes out of the yard. There is nothing you can do about it. I definitely would have scored if it was over [Bruce's] head. Bruce made a great play. He came up firing. Nothing I can do."
Washington had another chance to at least tie the score in the eighth inning. Reliever Jonathan Broxton got two quick outs, but he walked Anthony Rendon and hit Jayson Werth with a pitch.
Reds manager Bryan Price then brought in closer Aroldis Chapman, who got Adam LaRoche to ground out to end the threat.
In the ninth inning, Ian Desmond led off with a walk. Harper came to the plate and tried to bunt on the first pitch but missed for a strike. It looked like Harper was going to attempt to bunt again, but he pulled back. Unfortunately, Desmond was caught trying to steal second base.
"The next pitch was a fake bunt. I tried to pull it back and let Desi steal second," Harper said. "Even if you are in scoring position, it's tough against Chapman. He throws 103 [mph]. I kind of [had] no shot."
Reds catcher Brayan Pena remembered a similar situation against the Yankees in the club's loss on Sunday.
"Last time, against the Yankees, we kind of let [Jacoby] Ellsbury take a big jump, and he ended up being the winning run," Pena said. "[Chapman and I] talked about it after the game, and I told him, 'You know what, from now on, no matter who's running on first, we have to give them a couple of looks. Especially when Harper was bunting, it was one of those that [Chapman] gave me a quick step, and he gave me a chance to throw [Desmond] out."
Chapman then struck out Harper and Ramos to earn the four-out save, his 22nd save of the season.
Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez was nearly as good as Cueto. He lasted seven innings, allowing one run on four hits and striking out eight.
After having one of his worst outings against the Brewers last Sunday, Gonzalez decided to take a page out of the book from teammates Doug Fister and Tanner Roark and work fast on the mound.
"It's working quick and try to pound the strike zone," Gonzalez said. "Not trying to baby your pitches and just try to go out there and do your best, throw strikes."
Gonzalez's only tough inning occurred in the fifth, when Chris Heisey scored on a one-out single by Pena after hitting a ground-rule double and stealing third base.
Since returning from the disabled list, Gonzalez is 3-2 with a 2.30 ERA. But don't think Gonzalez is satisfied with what he has accomplished.
"You have to keep working. I will never be satisfied until the season is over," Gonzalez said. "It's one of those things where you try to do your best and try to minimize damage as much as possible. Today's game was going to be one of those high-intense games. Cueto was fantastic. You look at how the game went, it was going to be all the way to the end."
With the loss, the Nationals are now 1 1/2 games ahead of the Braves for first place in the National League East after Atlanta beat San Diego, 5-3, Saturday night at Turner Field.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the Time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.