The Nationals keep doing just enough to lose ballgames. When they need to drive in the tying runner in scoring position, they strand him. When they need to keep a deficit at one run, they give a run back. When they need to make sure all 27 outs they make are at the plate, they make one on the bases.
Is it any wonder they keep losing one-run games?
Add tonight’s 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Red Sox to the mix. It’s the Nationals’ fifth straight loss by one run, their 16th of the season (against only eight wins).
They could be right in the thick of the National League East race right now if they simply did one more thing right per game. Instead, they’ve dug themselves into a significant hole.
At 42-41, the Nationals are teetering ever so close to the .500 mark, and (after the Braves won in extra innings at Yankee Stadium) have fallen seven games back in the division.
“This is where the test is, that even when things aren’t going your way, when things are bleak, when we haven’t been playing great baseball, you have to find a way to take and find certain things you are doing well and just try to build off those,” Max Scherzer said. “That’s just what the whole team has to do.”
The Nationals did do some things well tonight, and manager Davey Martinez rightfully praised the intensity his team played with, right down to Anthony Rendon’s 105-mph lineout to left field on a 3-0 pitch from Craig Kimbrel with two outs and the tying runner on base in the bottom of the ninth.
“I’m proud of them,” Martinez said. “And like I said, they’ve been doing that. Yesterday, they played 13 innings. So I have nothing to complain about, nothing to say. The results weren’t what we wanted, but the attitude, the intensity, the energy was phenomenal today.”
All that may be true, but so is this: The Nationals didn’t win this close game, and they haven’t won a close game in more than a week.
Tonight’s narrow loss came on a night when Scherzer made one critical mistake (to the opposing pitcher, of all people). It came on a night when the Nats hit the ball out of the park but couldn’t drive in a runner from second base. And it came on a night when they again didn’t do the little things necessary to win a close major league game.
Scherzer admittedly was jacked up for this game, knowing he not only was facing the Red Sox but also his former teammate from Detroit in Rick Porcello. The three-time Cy Young Award winner promised over the weekend to throw the kitchen sink at Porcello, but little did he know that would come in the first major at-bat of the game.
With two on and two out in the top of the second, the Nationals elected to intentionally walk No. 8 batter Jackie Bradley Jr. (owner of a .198 batting average when play began) and load the bases for Porcello. It seemed a harmless enough tactic, if at bit aggressive so early in the game, but it backfired.
Scherzer started Porcello off with a slider and then a cutter, getting ahead in the count, 0-2. But then he tried to overpower the pitcher with a fastball and wound up leaving it over the plate. Porcello lashed it into left-center field to clear the bases and give Boston a sudden 3-0 lead.
“I know he can hit,” Scherzer said. “We played together. I’ve seen him hit. Give him a couple sliders to keep him off balance and then was trying to get a fastball up and away, and it ran back middle-in. Anybody can hit middle-in. He can do that. I’ve seen him do it. That’s where you’ve got to be better, no matter what. You’ve got to execute pitches against everybody.”
Despite an erratic evening overall, Scherzer was quite effective after the Porcello double, retiring 11 of 14 batters after that. But with his pitch count way up early, he was good for only six innings, pulled after 108 deliveries on a sweltering hot night.
And because the Nationals (who had scored four total runs in Scherzer’s last four starts) again couldn’t offer much run support, the ace departed with no chance to earn the win, only the loss.
As has so often been the case of late, the Nats had chances. They put at least one runner on base in each of the six innings they faced Porcello. But their only runs came on solo homers, one by Rendon in the fourth, one by Daniel Murphy in the sixth, one by Bryce Harper in the eighth.
Murphy’s homer, his first of the season, was an encouraging sight for a guy still trying to find his peak swing after knee surgery. Not so encouraging, though, was the sight of him trying to go from first to third on Wilmer Difo’s second-inning single to right. Mookie Betts threw out Murphy easily.
“I’m trying to get to third base with one out right there to give (No. 8 hitter Pedro Severino) a chance to drive me in with the pitcher on deck. I’ll do that play 10 times out of 10. I would prefer not to get thrown out, but I’d do it every single time.”
That scenario was emblematic of the Nationals, not only on this night but throughout the last month. Needing to make the most of what few scoring opportunities they get, they often run themselves out of innings. And when they don’t do that, they don’t deliver hits when they need them most.
That happened again tonight, with Rendon front and center. His fourth-inning homer helped, but his failure with two on and two out in both the fifth (strikeout) and seventh (ground ball to short) hurt more.
“Losses are losses,” Rendon said. “We’ve just got to keep on grinding. It sucks, but keep on going.”
The Nationals bullpen, meanwhile, couldn’t produce a shutdown inning when that was needed. Betts greeted Brandon Kintzler with a leadoff homer in the seventh on a 1-2 fastball to increase the deficit to 4-2 and make life even more difficult.
“Those are the little things, the little nuances that we’ve really got to clean up,” Martinez said. “You give up a home run 0-2, 1-2, it shouldn’t happen. Not the way these guys pitch. It shouldn’t. So those are the little things. If we can clean that up, those one-run games go in a different direction.”
Harper did bring some life back to the park when he launched his 21st homer of the season deep into the second deck in right field. But that only trimmed the deficit back to one run. And we know how often the Nationals have faced a one-run deficit lately, and how those games have wound up.
“A loss is a loss,” Harper said. “Go out there and try to win ballgames, and they all feel the same to me. I mean, we lose the game, you’re a loser. Win the game, you’re a winner.”