NEW YORK - The Nationals have played 2,234 games in nearly 14 seasons since arriving in the District. And most of the first 1,000 or so of those games were played by losing teams, many of them with lineups severely lacking in talent.
Never before, however, had this team failed to score a run in three consecutive games. Not during the Lastings Milledge Era. Not during the days of Cleanup Hitter Austin Kearns. Not during meaningless late-September days when Jeff Kobernus led off, Scott Hairston batted third and Zach Walters hit fifth.
So consider, then, the low point the last 72 hours now represent. Because for the first time in club history, the Nationals have been shut out three straight times. With a lineup that included Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Juan Soto, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton.
“It’s very mind-numbing, because we have such good talent,” Eaton said. “We have guys who have unbelievable numbers throughout their career. And for some reason this year it’s kind of haven’t been able to put it together.”
Mind-numbing or not, it happened again today at Citi Field, where the quartet of Zack Wheeler, Daniel Zamora, Drew Smith and Jerry Blevins proved too daunting for the Nats during a 3-0 loss that was every bit as aggravating as it sounds.
On Wednesday night, Zimmerman set off a celebration at Nationals Park with a walk-off homer to beat the Phillies. Since then ... bupkis. The Nationals were shut out by Aaron Nola and Pat Neshek on Thursday in D.C. They were shut out by Jason Vargas, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman on Friday in Flushing. And they were shut out again today, wasting another stellar start from Tanner Roark.
Roark went six strong innings, carrying his own shutout into the sixth until Amed Rosario homered to break the deadlock. The Mets would later add runs off the Nationals bullpen via a Todd Frazier homer and a Michael Conforto RBI single.
They didn’t need any insurance. Not against this lineup. Not right now.
“I think we ran into some good pitching,” Harper said. “Nola the first day, of course, up for Cy Young. Vargy, 18-game winner last year. And Wheeler today was throwing the ball extremely well. Just ran into some good guys.”
It’s not like the Nationals didn’t give themselves chances to end the streak today. They had plenty of them. Good ones. They just couldn’t convert any, even after some nice execution in rarely seen small-ball tactics.
Eaton got the game started with a drag bunt single, took second on Turner’s sacrifice bunt and reached third when Rendon beat out a slow roller in the top of the first. But he didn’t cross the plate, not after Soto struck out to end the inning.
Those players figured into the equation again in the top of the third, which saw the Nationals load the bases with one out on an Eaton walk, a perfect hit-and-run by Turner through the right side of the infield and a Harper walk. But Rendon lined out to short and Soto grounded out on the first pitch he saw to kill that rally.
Continuing with the every-other-inning theme, the Nationals again put two men on base in the top of the fifth. And again, they failed to convert, with Harper grounding into a double play to end that opportunity.
By the time Matt Wieters reached scoring position with one out in the seventh, it surprised no one when he never advanced. Andrew Stevenson, pinch-hitting for Roark, popped up to the catcher. Then after Eaton was drilled by Wheeler on a first-pitch fastball, Turner grounded out as the crowd roared with delight.
“I’m trying to get things going, and moving things around and see what happens,” manager Davey Martinez said of the small-ball attempts early on. “It’s like somebody shut the door to get home. We got to get home. We got to get home.”
It would be one thing if these last three days were a mere blip on the radar, a run of bad luck and dominant pitching. But it’s not. The Nationals have been shut out 14 times this season. Only the rebuilding Tigers, with 16, have been shut out more times in 2018.
“It’s actually really hard to explain because, like you said, they’re really talented,” Martinez said. “What I see is missing pitches they should hit a lot. Just not continuing the inning. Getting a leadoff hitter on, and kind of stranding them. Things of that nature. But we’ve got to keep battling. We’ve got a good group of guys that I know can hit. They’ve hit in the past. They’re going to hit.”
The lack of hitting today quashed Roark’s hopes of being taken off the hook for a hard-luck loss. The right-hander did just about everything in his power to avoid his first “L” since his last start here in New York (July 13) but he couldn’t overcome his teammates’ lack of production at the plate.
Roark allowed only four Mets to reach base in his six innings of work, issuing zero walks while striking out seven. But he made one fateful mistake in the bottom of the sixth on an 0-2 fastball to Rosario, who sent the ball over the wall in deep left-center for the game’s first run.
“Just did not execute a pitch,” Roark said. “Just one pitch. And usually when you don’t execute one pitch in a pitchers’ duel, it usually comes down to that. And it happened today.”
The 1-0 deficit shouldn’t have seemed too daunting to overcome. Even the 3-0 deficit later on should have been within reach. But the way the Nationals look right now? It felt downright impossible to overcome.