CHICAGO - The stakes perhaps felt a little higher, given the opposition, the location and all the familiar faces that have worn both clubs’ uniforms in the last two seasons. But today’s series opener at Wrigley Field felt remarkably familiar for a Nationals team that has found itself in situations just like this all summer long and consistently has shown itself unable to emerge victorious.
Early offense, but a bunch of squandered opportunities to tack on needed runs later? Check.
Dominance from Jeremy Hellickson, only to have everything unravel once he was facing an opposing lineup a third time? Check.
An ineffective performance from several relievers who haven’t proven themselves up to snuff in tight situations late? Check.
And a one-run loss in a highly winnable game to further damage their chances of climbing back into a pennant race that is slipping away with each passing day? Check. Possibly checkmate.
Today’s 3-2 loss to the Cubs didn’t end the Nationals’ season. But it was merely the latest example of a close ballgame that simply needs to be won by a team with any interest in reaching October. Barring a complete reversal of fortune over the next month-and-a-half, the Nats won’t be playing in October.
“We’ve just got to get better, fundamentally better,” manager Davey Martinez said. “That’s the key. We can’t make those little mistakes. Because when you’re playing a team that’s good, it’s gonna cost you. And it did today.”
It’s been costing the Nationals all summer long, and the storyline isn’t changing. They’re now 11-19 in one-run-games. The two teams they’re theoretically chasing in the National League East? The Phillies are 20-11, the Braves are 15-8.
If the Nats were merely mediocre in close games, they’d be right in the thick of the race. If they were good, they’d be in first place. Instead, they’re six games back entering the evening, with both Philadelphia and Atlanta still to play.
“That’s the thing: They hurt, because they’re so close,” said reliever Sammy Solís. “But at the same time, it’s encouraging, because they’re close. It’s going to roll our way eventually. We just have to keep going about our business the same way and stay consistent and make pitches, and it’s going to turn.”
Consistency isn’t going to turn anything around. If anything, the Nationals are too consistent in these situations, leading to outcomes that all feel the same. Add today’s game to the list, because you’ve probably watched it before.
The afternoon began in inauspicious fashion for Hellickson, who walked leadoff man Anthony Rizzo on four pitches and then fell behind Javy Báez 3-0 before battling back to strike him out and ultimately get out of the inning with no more damage.
Hellickson would quickly find his groove and promptly morph himself into a dominant right-hander who had the most productive lineup in the National League eating out of the palm of his hand.
Taking advantage of a rare summer wind blowing in off Lake Michigan, Hellickson watched as several Cubs batters made solid contact, only to have the ball die in the air and be caught at the warning track. And in keeping the ball in the strike zone, he reached the bottom of the sixth having thrown only 59 pitches without surrendering a hit.
“I just tried to do what I always do: Get ahead and get early outs,” Hellickson said. “Just let our defense play.”
The Nationals, meanwhile, racked up a bunch of early hits off Kyle Hendricks, five of them in the first three innings to be exact. They managed only two runs, though, each coming via a two-out single. Juan Soto got them on the board with a base hit up the middle in the top of the first, Adam Eaton followed with a run-scoring knock to right in the top of the second to give his team a 2-0 lead.
Those two runs held up for quite a while, right into the fateful bottom of the sixth, which began with Hellickson recording two outs but now requiring him to face the top of the Chicago order for the third time.
Thus ensued the most significant at-bat of the game, a 13-pitch marathon in which Rizzo kept fouling off pitches from Hellickson, who finally succumbed and walked the dangerous lefty to snap his streak of consecutive batters retired at 17.
“I think I tried everything,” the right-hander said. “That’s why he’s one of the best hitters in our game. He’s just always up there battling. Two outs, nobody on, starts a little rally. I just can’t walk guys right there. It just can’t happen that way. I’ve got to make them put the ball in play.”
Except that’s exactly what Hellickson didn’t do. He proceeded to throw eight more balls in a row, walking both Báez and Ben Zobrist to the load the bases and leave Martinez with no choice but to pull his starter, no-hitter at stake or not.
“He was done,” the manager said. “He was pitching a no-hitter. It was tough to take him out, but I knew.”
The problem: Martinez needed a lefty to face Jason Heyward, and neither of his options (Solis or Matt Grace) has proven consistently effective in these situations. Martinez decided to go with Solis, who fell behind in the count 2-0 and then served up a laser of a two-run single past a diving Daniel Murphy. The Cubs had only one hit, but they now were tied with the Nationals in the run column, 2-2.
“Obviously just getting behind in the count, going 2-0, is not ideal, especially against these guys because they’re free-swinging,” Solis said. “So you get behind in the count, that eliminates off-speed for the most part. And they’re sitting dead-red, like you saw there.”
One inning later, the tie game turned into a 3-2 lead for Chicago. Solís allowed a leadoff single before getting pulled in favor of Greg Holland, the recently acquired castoff from the Cardinals who got some help when Willson Contreras was called out for interference running inside the baseline on a bunt attempt but then served up two straight singles to leave the bases loaded.
And when Holland walked Rizzo on four pitches to force in the go-ahead run, the Nationals found themselves trailing for the first time all afternoon.
“With Rizzo up there, he’s dangerous,” Holland said. “You’re trying to throw a well-executed pitch and hopefully get a double play. I just fell behind. The last few pitches of that sequence, I didn’t throw where I wanted to, obviously.”
Needing a rally, the Nationals got back-to-back walks from Bryce Harper and Soto off ex-teammate Brandon Kintzler. But with Carl Edwards Jr. on the mound, Soto fell victim to a play that has killed the Nats before: Contreras picked him off first base as the trailing runner, a la José Lobatón in Game 5 last October, for a killer out.
“That’s just a young mistake,” said Martinez, the former Cubs bench coach. “We talked to Soto. He knew Willson is going to back-pick at any time.”
“I feel pretty bad, because you want to help the team the most you can,” said the 19-year-old outfielder, who also was picked off by Hendricks earlier in the game. “Just learn about that and keep going.”
The Nationals are talking a lot right now about learning from their mistakes and moving forward, still believing they’ve got a late surge in them.
Thing is, shouldn’t they already have learned from these same mistakes by now? And shouldn’t they acknowledge time has almost run out for any corrections to even matter anymore?