It’s not a make-or-break series, not in late June, but if the Nationals wanted to remind the Phillies in tonight’s weekend opener on South Capitol Street that they’re still top dogs in the division, they didn’t do a particularly convincing job.
With another laborious and ineffective start from Tanner Roark and another lackluster performance from their lineup, the Nats were roughed up by rivals from up Interstate-95, falling 12-2 and falling into third place in the National League East.
The gap remains small - 1/2-game behind now-second-place Philadelphia, 3 1/2 games behind first-place Atlanta - but the Nationals aren’t exactly seizing these opportunities to re-establish their standing in a division they’ve owned four of the last six years.
“It’s not even the All-Star break yet,” Roark said. “We’ll be fine. I’m confident in all these guys in here. Guys are coming back from injuries. Once we get it clicking, I think we’ll be OK.”
There may still be more than half the season to play, but if the Nationals intend to make their move and get out in front of both surprise contenders, they’re going to need to start playing and pitching a lot better.
They did neither well tonight, with Roark’s struggles topping the list of growing concerns. Five days after getting battered around by the Blue Jays and declaring afterward that he “stunk,” the right-hander again couldn’t put away hitters and again racked up a gargantuan pitch count.
Roark allowed six runs in 4 1/3 innings, with two a piece scoring in the first, third and fifth. The big hits: Carlos Santana’s two-run single in the first, Odúbel Herrera’s two-run homer in the third and Nick Williams’ RBI single in the fifth.
Williams’ hit made him the third straight Phillies batter to reach base against a clearly gassed Roark, who was allowed to throw a total of 113 pitches while left-hander Tim Collins appeared to be warm and ready in the bullpen. Manager Davey Martinez finally pulled the plug two batters later after one run scored and the bases were loaded, and although Collins did surrender an RBI single to Andrew Knapp, he proceeded to retire the next two batters to get out of the inning down 6-2.
“We really tried to get him through that fifth inning,” Martinez said. “Granted, it didn’t go well, but he got us through and he threw a bunch of pitches and I didn’t want him to throw more pitches. So it was a rough day.”
Had this been a rare blip from Roark, it wouldn’t have been much of a concern. But this has become an ongoing saga, bottoming out in the last week. Combined with his most recent outing Sunday in Toronto, Roark has now allowed 10 runs on 15 hits with six walks in 8 1/3 innings, throwing an almost unfathomable 210 pitches along the way.
“The last two starts, I’ve left the bullpen out to dry, and I’m not happy about it,” he said. “Again tonight I did the same thing with the bullpen. I left them out to dry.”
Roark’s offensive teammates supported him at Rogers Centre with a good amount of offensive support before ultimately losing on back-to-back homers surrendered by Ryan Madson. Tonight, they didn’t give him much of anything.
Doubles by Juan Soto and Michael A. Taylor, and a sacrifice fly by Wilmer Difo, produced two runs in the bottom of the second and briefly tied the game. But the Nationals otherwise were shut down by Phillies starter Zach Eflin (five innings) and the parade of relievers that followed.
The Nats had some chances along the way. But they stranded runners in scoring position in the third, fourth, fifth and seventh innings, failing to get the big hits they needed to complete another rally or two.
“We got a couple guys on early and went a little flat late, but we’re going to have games like that,” Taylor said. “Just come back tomorrow and get things rolling.”
Before this one was over, though, relievers Matt Grace, Sammy Solís and Justin Miller combined to give up six late runs, unofficially turning it into the worst game of the season on South Capitol Street. Now pressure falls on the home ballclub to turn things around the rest of the weekend before this turns into a real problem.
“For me, today was the first game where we really got blown out,” Martinez said. “That was a blowout. Everybody saw the game. So we’ve been playing really well. We’ve just got to keep our heads up, and guys go home, get their rest and come back tomorrow and do it again.”