They are 5-4, with one of the most productive lineups in baseball and a 2.49 ERA among the permanent members of their starting rotation. So let’s not write the Nationals off altogether.
Having said that, there are without question several areas of concern nine games into the season, areas that have mostly been responsible for their four losses to date and have nearly turned a couple of their wins into defeats.
There is the bullpen, which has surrendered a staggering nine home runs already, the latest coming in the top of the ninth of today’s 6-1 loss to the Cardinals.
There is the defense, which committed a staggering seven errors in this three-game series and has been charged with nine overall on the young season. (And that doesn’t take into account several misplays in the field that weren’t technically errors.)
And then there is Anthony Rendon, who is the only healthy lineup regular off to something less than a strong start, looking lost today at the plate, in the field and even on the bases.
The bullpen struggles were less of an issue in today’s loss than in previous games, if only because the Nationals already trailed 3-1 when Joe Blanton served up a three-run homer to Stephen Piscotty in the top of the ninth. In the bigger picture, though, it remains a significant issue, in large part because Nats relievers simply have been unable to keep the ball in the park.
As a whole, this pitching staff has given up 10 home runs this season. Only one of those was surrendered by a starter (Gio Gonzalez, on Tuesday night to Randal Grichuk). The other nine have come out of the hands of the seven relievers who have been on the roster since opening day, including two from Blanton and three from Shawn Kelley.
“How many is that? Nine? That’s an uncharacteristically high number,” manager Dusty Baker said. “That just shows we’re not yet making quality pitches, or hanging sliders. Because most of them come on sliders.”
However they’re coming, they’re coming in bunches. And they’re either turning comfortable leads into tight ballgames, or turning manageable deficits into insurmountable obstacles.
The defensive woes came to a head in this series and also played a direct role into today’s loss. The Nationals were charged with two errors: one by Rendon, one by Wilmer Difo. Difo’s mishandling of a grounder in the top of the fifth set in motion a chain of events that led to two unearned runs off Max Scherzer. They’ve also had some sloppy moments in the field that weren’t ruled errors but nonetheless prevented potential outs from being recorded.
“It always concerns me when you don’t catch it or throw it,” Baker said. “Because you’re giving away outs. You give away extra outs. And the game wasn’t designed for 30 outs vs. 27. We’ve just got to tighten our defense up. We’ve got to tighten our defense, and we’ve got to tighten our entire game up.”
Is that something Baker addresses directly with his players when it happens?
“That’s something that I address all the time,” he said. “I address it from the time we’re at spring training, and we work on it. We’ve just got to keep working.”
“Those guys are out there grinding, trying to do everything they can,” said Scherzer, who allowed only one earned run today. “Sometimes it’s like hitting. Hitting is contagious; so is fielding. We’re a very good defensive ballclub. The fact that we have made errors, that just happens. We are baseball players. But when you have the team that we’re on, those guys will end up making plays. I have no doubts about that.”
What, though, to make of Rendon, currently mired in a miserable slump to begin his season that today extended beyond the batter’s box?
Though he lined a sharp single up the middle in his first at-bat, Rendon finished 1-for-4 and is batting .133 (4-for-30) with zero extra-base hits, two walks and nine strikeouts so far in 2017. And the one time he reached base today, he didn’t stay there long, getting himself picked off without bothering to dive back into the bag.
Add his eighth-inning error - his second of this series - and the end results are not positive.
“He’s struggling some,” Baker said. “He’s feeling better daily. But let’s not forget he struggled last April, too. So we’ve got more than half of April to go. He can still have a very good April. It was a tough game for him today. ... He’s a good hitter, and you know he’s going to have a breakout game here.”