Spend even a few minutes around Nationals manager Davey Martinez and you quickly realize how much he craves attention to detail. No action is too small to be rushed through or done poorly. Pay attention to the small stuff, and you’ll prosper; ignore it, and you invite fate to intercede, usually in the worst possible way.
The little things loomed large in Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Phillies, a setback that came on the heels of a 12-2 drubbing that knocked the Nationals out of second place in the National League East. The Nats have now lost three of four games and seven of nine, and it may be time for the rookie manager to start re-emphasizing a methodical, focused approach to his charges.
Sure, there were good points, even in defeat. Right-hander Erick Fedde worked into the seventh inning, continuing to build his confidence and demonstrate he belongs in a major league rotation. Daniel Murphy drilled a two-run single in the first to stake Fedde to an early advantage, though it was short-lived. Juan Soto had another opposite-field extra-base hit, a double that preceded Murphy’s two-run hit. And hot-hitting Anthony Rendon had two more hits, including his eighth homer, bumping his homestand average to 10-for-22 (.455).
But in the span of three batters in the seventh inning, everything became unraveled, starting with the double by Maikel Franco that knocked Fedde from the game and ignited the rally that snapped a 2-2 tie that had existed since the second inning.
First, Martinez opted to leave Fedde in the game after he threw six innings and scattered seven hits. There were multiple reasons for the decision - Tanner Roark’s short start Friday night meant the bullpen had to cover 4 2/3 innings, and rookie Jefry Rodriguez’s upcoming start in Sunday night’s finale poses the possibility of needing the bullpen. Most of all, Martinez wanted to instill further confidence in Fedde, who was confounding the Phillies by throwing all five of his pitches for strikes.
Fedde had totaled 95 pitches through six frames, and used a couple of pitch-efficient innings in the middle of the game to elongate his start and notch his first trip past the sixth inning this season. Martinez was ready to stretch as much as another inning out of the right-hander, until Franco ripped a cutter that caught too much of the plate to center field for a leadoff double. With newly acquired right-hander Kelvin Herrera’s presence making Ryan Madson available for the seventh, Martinez walked to the mound and hooked Fedde.
Madson got Jorge Alfaro on a grounder to short, but Franco moved up a base. Pinch-hitter Jesmuel Valentín then shot a liner to right that was caught by Adam Eaton, who seemed to take an extra step before throwing home but still uncorked a strong enough peg to the plate to catch Franco.
Catcher Spencer Kieboom, however, had set up a little too far in front of the plate, perhaps thinking he could make the catch - either on the fly or on a short hop - and swipe a tag on Franco. But Kieboom seemed indecisive about where to take the throw, and by the time he doubled back to apply the tag, Franco slid home safely. The Nationals challenged the safe call, but it was upheld on replay review.
“That’s on me,” Kieboom said. “The throw came in and I thought maybe it was going to be a little bit of a short hop - Adam made a great throw - and I came up a little bit and retreated. At the same time, I just had too much space.”
From his perch in the dugout, Martinez immediately knew that Kieboom was positioned poorly.
“I actually thought Kieboom was a little ahead of home plate,” Martinez said. “He should’ve probably sat back. He thought the ball was going to bounce. So he went to get it. But he should’ve just stayed back and tried to catch the ball by the plate.”
Martinez, however, stood by his call to leave Fedde in the game for the seventh. Trying to extract another few outs was less important, he said, than continuing to boost the rookie’s confidence - even if he’s still looking for his first major league victory as a result of what followed.
“(Fedde) was going to keep going, but they got a guy on and we had Madson ready,” Martinez said. “(Fedde) was throwing some bowling balls. He just got one pitch up, but he was dealing. Bottom of the order, if he can get through that - if he gets through that, we would be in great shape.
“I always say - I repeat myself every day, but it’s about the little things. Today was about the little things. Not knocking balls down. The plays at home. Things like that. But I’m proud of the guys. They fought. They battled.”
Right at the top of the list was Fedde, who labored through the first two innings and watched helplessly as shortstop Trea Turner’s inability to get a ball out of his glove on Scott Kingery’s two-out grounder set the stage for a prolonged two-run inning that left him at 46 pitches.
More than ever, Fedde came out of the start feeling like he belongs in the majors.
“I felt fine,” he said. “Right when I walked out in the sixth, I looked to Davey and said, ‘I’m ready to go.’ I know yesterday we had a long one, and however long I could get - especially in a tie game - get us going. Unfortunately, I led off that inning pretty poorly. I wish I could’ve done better.”
Kieboom isn’t sure that’s possible, noting that Fedde’s ability to control five pitches gave him a distinct advantage.
“I thought Fedde did a tremendous job,” Kieboom said. “I couldn’t be more proud of him. He did, he mixed all five pitches - sliders, curveballs, changeups, cutters in, fastballs. He did a good job. I thought he attacked hitters and at the beginning, we were kind of picking, but after that he really attacked.”
The 10 groundball outs Fedde got showed how effective his sinking fastball was.
“I felt like my stuff was pretty good today,” he said. “Yeah. I had a lot of ground balls today. That’s usually when I know my stuff’s good.”
Kieboom has noticed the Fedde’s growth over the past couple of weeks: “He’s been getting better and better every single time.”
The Phillies still held a 3-2 lead in the eighth when Herrera came on and allowed a one-out solo homer to Carlos Santana and an RBI single to Franco. Rendon’s solo shot with one down in the eighth off Adam Morgan got the Nats back with 5-3, but Seranthony Domínguez got the final three outs, fanning pinch-hitter Michael A. Taylor to close it out and halt Taylor’s hitting streak at a career-high 13 games.
Though unhappy that several small plays made a huge different in another disappointing loss, Martinez continues to search for positives. And he still found some amid what clearly has become a frustrating stretch, though he knows a little more offense would give his pitchers more margin for error and his team some breathing room.
“Look, I got all the confidence in the world that we’re going to start hitting,” he said. “(Bryce Harper is) swinging the bat a lot better. Murph’s starting to swing the bat better. Soto’s been Soto. So these guys are all, they’re all going to start swinging. Rendon, what an at-bat he put on to hit a home run. We’ll start scoring some runs. Bullpen right now is a little beat up so we got to get them going again.”