They said and did all the right things before the game. They went through a spirited afternoon workout that included a focus on defense and baserunning. They all wore customized shirseys with their regular numbers on the back but the world “NATIONALS” replacing their last names. They spoke of the need to play as one and to treat every remaining series on the schedule as critical.
Then the Nationals took the field and opened the second half of their season with an 8-5 loss to the Braves that bore far too much resemblance to many of their losses from the first half of the season. With a new wrinkle - an animated dugout conversation between the top two members of their rotation - thrown into the mix to spice things up.
The postgame focus will be on that heated discussion between Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer after the former was pulled in the top of the fifth having surrendered six runs in his return from the disabled list.
But the broader issues are the ones that were familiar. A starting pitcher putting his team in an early hole and failing to reach the later innings. A lineup that couldn’t make the most of its scoring opportunities. And defense and baserunning that weren’t on par with the opposition.
As a result, the Nationals fell back under the .500 mark at 48-49, dropped six games behind the Braves and were in danger of falling 6 1/2 games behind the first-place Phillies in a National League East race that had better tighten soon if the two-time defending champs want to make a serious run at three in a row.
With all eyes on him as he took the mound - on his 30th birthday - to make his first start in six weeks, Strasburg dug himself and his team into a quick 2-0 hole. He did so despite surrendering only two hits (a leadoff single by Ronald Acuña Jr., then a double by Ozzie Albies). The Braves, though, made the most of it thanks to stolen bases by both runners, each getting a huge jump on Strasburg, and then Freddie Freeman’s RBI groundout.
Against that backdrop, the Nationals found themselves once again seeking to make up an early deficit, a common theme over the last two months. They did get one run right back in the bottom of the first thanks to a surprising - and welcome - display of small ball that included a double steal by Bryce Harper and Adam Eaton, the latter swiping home on the back end of the play.
But that was a rare instance of a successful conversion of a scoring opportunity for the Nationals, who managed to put six of their first 12 batters on base against Aníbal Sánchez but plate only one of them (on the aforementioned double-steal).
They got a pair of solo homers later on, with Matt Adams sending a laser down the right field line in the third and Trea Turner lofting a moonshot down the left field line in the fifth. But that’s all they could muster against Sanchez, whose assortment of slow and slower stuff was effective during a 112-pitch start. (Juan Soto did add a two-run homer off lefty Jesse Biddle later on to trim the deficit to three runs.)
Strasburg was far less effective, constantly finding himself trying to pitch out of trouble. The Braves put at least one runner in scoring position in four of their five innings against the right-hander, and scored in three of those innings.
And when things started to fall apart in the fifth - three straight hits brought home two more runs and made it 6-2 Atlanta - Strasburg’s night ended with some displays of negative emotion. Pulled by manager Davey Martinez after 98 pitches, Strasburg retreated to the dugout, where he received a pat on the back from Scherzer.
It seemed an innocent enough gesture, but after sitting down on the bench, Strasburg got into an animated conversation with Scherzer. He quickly rose to his feet and stormed down the dugout steps toward the clubhouse, Scherzer following right behind as the two continued to yap.
Whatever the gist of the conversation was, it was not what the Nationals wanted to experience in their first game out of the All-Star chute. Nor the tone they wanted to set for the first of many, by their own admission, big series left on a schedule that is shrinking by the day.