CINCINNATI -- After the Reds' series finale against the Nationals at Great American Ball Park on Sunday, the word "faith" was spoken several times in the Cincinnati clubhouse. And after the outcome on the field, the Reds' faith continues to be tested.
Right-hander Mat Latos gave up three runs on three hits over six innings, but Cincinnati's offense remained punchless until a late rally in the ninth that fell short en route to a 4-2 loss to Washington. It was the Reds' eighth defeat in nine games to start the second half of the season.
"You've just got to have faith, I guess," said catcher Devin Mesoraco, whose two-run double in the ninth accounted for the Reds' only offense. "Have faith that it is going to turn around, have faith that at some point, you are going to do what you are capable of doing, that you'll do your job."
With their injury-depleted lineup -- missing two of their best hitters in Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips -- the Reds enjoyed a pre-All-Star break stretch in which they won 16 of 23 to cut their deficit in the National League Central from 8 1/2 games to 1 1/2.
Since then, the offense has virtually disappeared and the gap in the division has widened to six games. In the nine second-half games they've played, the Reds are averaging 1.8 runs per game, fewer than six hits per game and are batting .178 as a team.
Cincinnati has also seen three of its best hitters struggle.
• Billy Hamilton was batting .285 before the break, and he is 6-for-34 (.176) since.
• Mesoraco was batting .304 before the break and is 4-for-22 (.182) since.
• Todd Frazier was batting .290 with 19 home runs and 53 RBIs before the break, and he is 6-for-33 (.182) with one homer (his only extra-base hit and only RBI) since.
With the lack of offense, Cincinnati has had to rely even more on its pitching staff, particularly looking for its starters to be as good or better than they were in the season's first half. But after Johnny Cueto's seven scoreless innings in Saturday's win, Reds starters had only turned in two quality starts in their last eight outings.
Latos added to that number Sunday, but it wasn't enough to prevent another loss. He walked a season-high four batters, hit a batter and struck out a season-high six. He had walked only three batters in his three previous starts combined.
Latos surrendered all three runs he would allow in the fifth inning. Danny Espinosa led off the frame with a single to center, the Nationals' first hit off Latos. One out later, Washington starter Doug Fister laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance Espinosa to second.
Already having walked two batters in the game, Latos began to have even bigger command issues, issuing a free pass to Denard Span and hitting Anthony Rendon to load the bases. He then got ahead in the count, 1-2, to Jayson Werth, and threw a curveball that was called a ball by home-plate umpire Toby Basner. Latos was visibly upset with that call, as well as others by Basner in that inning.
The right-hander proceeded to walk Werth, forcing in a run. The next batter, Adam LaRoche, hit a two-run single to left to make it 3-0.
"I let a couple things get to me that I shouldn't have," Latos said. "I felt like I made a couple of pitches that hadn't gone the other way earlier in the game and [Basner] was inconsistent behind the dish. But I'm not going to make any excuses; I flat out pitched like [garbage] that inning."
"He's a very emotional guy out there," Mesoraco said. "In some situations he gets a little frustrated, and allows that to carry over into other at-bats and other pitches. But in that situation, personally, I thought they were both balls, and he walked [Werth]."
The Nationals tacked on an unearned run in the ninth on an RBI single by Rendon against reliever Carlos Contreras.
The Reds scored in the ninth on the two-run double by Mesoraco against closer Rafael Soriano, a ball that bounced up against the wall in left-center and the closest anyone came to a homer on Sunday. The homerless affair was the third straight at Great American Ball Park, marking the first time that's happened in the 12-year history of the venue.
But Mesoraco's drive proved to be too little, too late.
"What it came down to is that we're not scoring any runs," Reds manager Bryan Price said. "Guys care. It matters to these guys. They're not going through the motions; we just don't have a lot to show for the effort.
"It'll turn. It's frustrating that it hasn't, but it will."
Price's belief was shared by shortstop Ramon Santiago.
"We know we haven't started the second half the way we wanted," said Santiago, who is hitting .292 this month, but is 4-for-19 (.211) since the All-Star break. "But at the same time, there's still a lot of baseball to play. We just have to never lose the faith and stay positive."
Not losing faith is perhaps the greatest challenge for the Reds amid a plethora of them as they fight to remain in the playoff hunt as August approaches.
Manny Randhawa is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.