This opening week to a lockout-delayed season always loomed as a daunting first act for the 2022 Nationals. Four games with the $290-million Mets, then three games with the defending champion Braves is not the kind of schedule designed to boost the morale of a rebuilding ballclub and its reluctant fan base.
And three games in, this is pretty much going exactly as everyone feared it would.
Back-to-back losses on opening night and then in Max Scherzer’s return to D.C. were followed up tonight with a tepid 5-0 loss in which every run prior to the ninth inning crossed the plate on one swing of Pete Alonso’s bat.
Alonso’s fifth-inning grand slam off Joan Adon ended the night for the Nationals rookie right-hander, one that included some encouraging signs but also some reminders that the 23-year-old still has a long way to go.
“I think he threw the ball pretty good, besides that inning,” designated hiter Nelson Cruz said. “He was in command. They’ve got a pretty good lineup over there, too.”
The grand slam might not have meant so much had the Nats lineup mounted even a semblance of a rally against Chris Bassitt and the Mets bullpen. But that never materialized.
The Nationals pitching staff figured to be a problem area from the get-go all along. The batting order, though, looked on paper to be at least respectable, thanks to the big bats that reside on the top half of Davey Martinez’s lineup card.
That has not proven true so far. Juan Soto and Josh Bell each have homered, and Yadiel Hernandez delivered a sacrifice fly Friday night. But that represents the entirety of the Nats offense through 27 innings.
The bottom half of the lineup has been a black hole: The sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth hitters are a collective 1-for-37 with 18 strikeouts.
There’s also a gaping hole in the No. 3 spot right now: Cruz is 1-for-12 with three strikeouts and eight groundouts.
As a result, the Nationals are 0-3 for the first time since 2009, a season that ended with a club record 103 losses.
“You just have to stay positive,” Cruz said. “It’s part of the game. If we’re talking about the middle of the season, we’re not talking about this. Because it’s the first three games, yeah we’ve definitely got to talk about it. We trust what we have. We believe in each other. And we should be fine. We’re going to be fine.”
That Adon made the opening day rotation was surprising enough. That he got the ball for the third game of the season wasn’t predicted by anyone. But minor ailments for Erick Fedde and Aníbal Sánchez over the last week-plus opened the door, and Martinez decided to thrust the kid into the spotlight tonight.
Adon didn’t look particularly fazed by the assignment, much as he looked perfectly comfortable making his major league debut against the Red Sox on the final day of the 2021 season. But it was clear the 23-year-old is still very much a work in progress.
Adon posted four consecutive zeros to begin his night, but it took a good amount of work on his part to get there. He needed 21 pitches to complete the first inning, then 22 to complete the second. He turned efficient for a little while after that, getting through the fourth with his total pitch count a more manageable 61. But now he faced the dreaded fifth inning, the inning that was the undoing of his two rotation mates the previous two nights.
“The starting pitching, we’ve got to go deeper in games,” Martinez said. “Three days now, we couldn’t get out of the fifth inning. … I’m looking at the second and third time through the order, and you’re trying to be a little more precise. For me, you’ve got to just keep making your pitches and attack the strike zone.”
Whether it was his increased pitch count, the prospect of facing the Mets lineup a third time or something entirely else, Adon’s downfall was swift. He gave up a leadoff single to James McCann, walked Brandon Nimmo, allowed both runners to advance on a wild pitch, then walked Francisco Lindor.
Up stepped Alonso, the Mets’ most feared power hitter, with the bases loaded in a still-scoreless game. Adon’s pitch count was 82. Austin Voth was warming in the bullpen. Four pitches later, Alonso was circling the bases following his moonshot grand slam to left, Martinez was walking to the mound to take the ball from Adon and Voth was making his way in from the bullpen.
"I was just trying to go and locate the pitch outside, repeat the same pitch I threw on the previous one,” Adon said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “Just missed a little bit and it ran over the plate."
Unlike the previous two nights, the Nationals bullpen didn’t let New York do much to extend its lead. Voth, Kyle Finnegan and Tanner Rainey each posted zeros to keep the deficit at 4-0. Andres Machado did give up a tack-on run in the ninth, his second inning of work after he had to replace an injured Mason Thompson three pitches into the eighth.
Thompson was suffering from a right biceps issue, according to Martinez, who said an MRI is scheduled Sunday for the reliever.
But it all made little difference given a Nats lineup that couldn’t do anything against Bassitt, continuing a disturbing early-season trend.
“It’s early. It’s cold,” Martinez said. “But we’ve got to get the ball in the zone. We’re taking too many early strikes, and then starting to chase. We need to be a little more aggressive in the strike zone, and just be ready to hit.”