The Nationals showed some much-needed emotion tonight during a critical game against the Braves. Unfortunately, it only came after they trailed by a hefty margin and after their youngest star was ejected for the first time in his life.
After Tommy Milone dug his teammates into a six-run hole, and the Nats tried to claw their way back while also watching 19-year-old slugger Juan Soto and hitting coach Kevin Long get ejected during a wild bottom of the sixth. In the end, the fiery emotions weren’t enough to propel the Nationals to a much-needed victory, and they were left to slink away with an 8-3 loss that leaves them in an even deeper hole in the National League East.
The Nats remain six games behind the first-place Phillies, who lost for the second time in three days to the Diamondbacks. But having lost two of the first three games of this four-game series, they now find themselves 5 1/2 games behind the second-place Braves.
“I don’t know if there’s really been missed opportunities; in the last week-and-a-half, 10 days we’ve been playing pretty good baseball,” Adam Eaton said. “We’ve got to tie the series tomorrow. I think that’s our biggest view right now.”
Despite the lopsided final score, the Nationals did have legitimate chances to rally late. Down 7-3 during that hectic bottom of the sixth, they loaded the bases and brought the tying run to the plate, only to watch as Eaton struck out on a 3-2 breaking ball from reliever Luke Jackson.
“I’m sitting really dead-red heater, and he throws me a breaking ball,” Eaton said. “Takes some big cajones to throw me a 3-2 breaking ball in that situation. ... I’m upset with myself. You always want to get it done. Especially in that situation where we’re making a push. We have some momentum. The crowd’s behind us there. Difficult.”
“We did it once again, couldn’t score,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We left 10 guys on base. They were fired up. We had some pretty good at-bats earlier. We just couldn’t get any runs.”
If only it hadn’t come down to all that.
The first four innings of this game featured seven Atlanta runs, all scoring via three home runs off Milone, who struggled for the first time in his three fill-in starts for the Nationals.
The left-hander, who pitched well against the Marlins and Mets, had no such fortune against the Braves. Charlie Culberson launched a three-run homer in the top of the second, then Tyler Flowers and Ronald Acuña Jr. each blasted two-run shots in the top of the fourth, Acuña’s tape-measure homer landing well up the batter’s eye in center field some 452 feet from the plate.
“I threw a lot of strikes, so I think they were geared up to swing,” Milone said. “Those balls up, whether they were geared for it or not, they hit them. It’s frustraing.”
Despite his starter’s ineffectiveness, Martinez let Milone bat for himself in the bottom of the fifth, a curious move that coincided with nobody warming in the bullpen and seemed to suggest the Nationals manager was waving the white flag on this game.
“Once they scored the runs like that, to pinch-hit for him, we needed length,” the manager said. “Right now our bullpen has been a little beat up. And I thought about tomorrow and covering tomorrow, too.”
After Milone finished a scoreless top of the sixth, the Nationals suddenly came back to life in the bottom of the inning, suggesting they were doing anything but giving up on this game.
It began with Bryce Harper sending a 3-2 pitch from Mike Foltynewicz the other way for his 28th homer of the season. But only seconds after Harper returned to a celebratory dugout, Soto stepped into the batter’s box and had words with plate umpire Greg Gibson.
Soto had expressed frustration with Gibson’s called third strike in his previous at-bat - he was hardly alone in being dissatisfied with Gibson’s strike zone during the game - and before he could ever see a pitch in this at-bat the rookie was ejected by the veteran ump.
“Just (that) the pitch before was a ball,” Soto said when asked what he said to Gibson. “Make sure he can understand and be better, and help him help us.”
“Basically, the reason he was ejected is: He came up and he was discussing his at-bat before that,” crew chief Jerry Layne told a pool reporter. “And it specifically states that it’s a no-no to go in and look at pitches (on video) and then come out and argue on top of that. Plus, on top of arguing balls and strikes in itself. So, that’s what got him in trouble.”
Martinez came out of the dugout to argue as well, though he didn’t say anything to merit his own ejection. But later on, Long was given the heave-ho after arguing from the top step of the dugout.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate for him to throw (Soto) out in that situation like that,” Martinez said. “He could’ve said: ‘Hey, that’s enough. Get in the box.’ But I’m not Gibby. I’m not going to speak for him.”
In the wake of all this, the Nationals proceeded to mount a rally. They loaded the bases, bringing the crowd of 30,203 back to life, before Eaton struck out. And after reliever Matt Grace surrendered a tack-on run in the top of the seventh and his teammates squandered another scoring opportunity in the bottom of the inning, whatever hope there was of an inspired comeback was dashed, replaced by the harsh reality that this team continues to be stuck in the mud, unable to sustain any kind of positive momentum during a critical stretch of the season.
“We’ve got to come ready to play every single day, and I think we did,” Eaton said. “I don’t think it was a game that we gave away, by any stretch of the imagination. They had some big homers, and we made some big pushes. But again, if I come up and hit a bases-clearing double, the game’s completely different. Screw me, you know. Punch me in the face.”