Bad version of Nats shows up again in loss to Bucs

PITTSBURGH – Eight games in, here’s what we can say about the 2022 Nationals: When they’re good, they look really good; when they’re not … well, you can finish that sentence however you like.

The Nats have now won three and lost five following a 9-4 loss to the Pirates that will quickly be cast into the dustbin of forgettable games, with no reason to watch the replay.

It falls right into the same category as Tuesday night’s blowout loss in Atlanta, as well as the three season-opening losses to the Mets last week. Forgettable games, all of them, defined by poor starting pitching, not enough hitting and not enough ability by the lesser half of their bullpen to keep a deficit within a manageable margin.

They’ve been in stark contrast to the Nationals’ four wins to date, each of them defined by a solid starting performance, clutch hitting and dominant work by manager Davey Martinez’s so-called “A” bullpen.

The most notable development to come out of tonight’s affair: Dee Strange-Gordon was scratched from the lineup after feeling ill and stayed at the team hotel. Martinez couldn’t offer up any more detail than that, including on the possibility of a roster move before Friday’s game.

“He was sick,” the manager said. “We sent him home. So that’s all I can say about that.”

Beyond Strange-Gordon’s health situation, the Nationals should be most concerned right now with a simple question: How can they put together more of the good games than the bad ones? This one most definitely fell into the latter category.

It began, believe it or not, in uplifting fashion. The Nats jumped out to a 3-0 lead with a top-of-the-first rally against Pittsburgh starter J.T. Brubaker, who issued three walks and then watched all three come around to score on Keibert Ruiz’s 386-foot single off the wall in right-center and Yadiel Hernandez’s subsequent 311-foot single in the same general direction.

“It gives me more confidence, obviously, having a 3-0 lead so that I can attack the zone more,” said starter Joan Adon, the beneficiary of that early run support, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “Be more aggressive in the zone and try to get out of the innings quickly.”

Alas, the 23-year-old couldn’t take full advantage of the situation.

Adon’s first start of the season was defined by a fifth-inning meltdown that was defined by one fateful pitch: a fastball right down the pipe to the Mets’ Pete Alonso that wound up in the bleachers for a grand slam. In the five days since, the Nationals coaching staff talked with the rookie right-hander about the need to slow things down when he starts losing control of an inning, and especially to not give in on any pitch, certainly not a fastball to one of the game’s best sluggers with the bases loaded.

Things could have spiraled out of control for Adon in the bottom of the first tonight. Handed that 3-0 lead by his teammates, he immediately gave one run back on Daniel Vogelbach’s leadoff homer. And after issuing a pair of one-out walks, he found himself in a jam.

Adon would pitch his way out of that one, salvaging the inning. Two frames later, he could not duplicate the feat. Bryan Reynolds launched a two-run homer to right-center off a fastball, sending the inning down a dangerous path. A couple of singles followed, then a two-run double by Kevin Newman – he was thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple – and a triple by Cole Tucker later, Adon had turned a 3-0 lead into a 5-3 deficit.

“We got through the first inning with just the run, but after that, that one inning blows up like it did the last time,” Davey Martinez said. “It was just that one inning. We’ve got to get him through, and that’s something that I talked about before with him. … Once again, the game speed sped up on him.”

To his credit, the rookie starter did manage to record five more outs before departing, nearly completing five innings before getting scored upon one more time. But six earned runs in 4 2/3 innings does not constitute a quality start, and Adon’s rough outing only put added strain on the Nationals’ “B” bullpen, which needed to somehow cobble together 3 1/3 innings (or, if the offense could come back and force a bottom of the ninth, 4 1/3 innings).

“I feel like the first couple innings, it was uncomfortable, getting acclimated a little bit,” Ruiz said via Octavio Martinez. “It felt like that last inning, we were getting a little bit more comfortable out there and we almost got out of the inning. Him and I both have to make adjustments through the game and get better at it and have a better outcome next time.”

In hindsight, it’s probably a good thing the Nats didn’t rally, because the bullpen probably didn’t have another inning in it tonight. After Hunter Harvey finished the fifth on 11 pitches, Andres Machado needed 34 pitches to complete the sixth, allowing one run, then Patrick Murphy needed 38 pitches to complete the seventh, allowing two runs.

Víctor Arano managed to post a zero in the bottom of the eighth, though his inning still included a hit, a stolen base, a wild pitch and only 12 of 23 pitches for strikes. All told, the Nationals threw 197 pitches tonight in eight innings, one final confirmation this qualified as the bad version of themselves in 2022.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Davey Martinez said. “The walks … I think we walked eight or nine games today, so these guys have got to come in and throw strikes. We’re down a couple runs. If they shut the door down, it could be a different ballgame. But when they come in, and all of a sudden walk the first leadoff hitter and all of a sudden things unravel, even if it’s just a run. That’s a big run, a big two runs there. These guys have got to come in and understand what their role is, and they’ve got to throw strikes.”

 
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