Defense, lack of clutch hitting doom Nats in opening loss (updated)

If there is going to be a semi-regular formula for the Nationals to win ballgames in 2023, it will almost certainly have to include clean defense from a revamped infield, quality pitching from a deep bullpen and timely hitting from a lineup that hits for contact better than for power.

Maybe they can pull out some curly Ws when they achieve two of those three goals. But to expect it when they only get one of them right? That’s a tall ask, as they learned this afternoon.

Despite hanging around with the defending division champions until things fell apart in the ninth, the Nationals were left to accept a 7-2 Opening Day loss to the Braves that was defined by sloppy defense and a lack of clutch hitting.

"I could tell you now, they were a little bit nervous," manager Davey Martinez said of his relatively inexperienced team. "I was a little nervous. It's part of it."

Three errors by shortstop CJ Abrams proved costly, as did a 1-for-11 showing by Nats hitters with runners in scoring position. Those combined to undermine a strong showing by the bullpen, which churned out five scoreless innings after a laboring Patrick Corbin was pulled in the top of the fourth, with only Kyle Finnegan faltering during a three-run top of the ninth that turned a close game lopsided.

It all made for a frustrating day for a crowd of 35,756 that bundled up to attend a cold season opener for this rebuilding team, hoping for significant improvement after a 107-loss showing in 2022.

Martinez was hopeful all spring about their chances of that, pointing specifically to improved defense and a lineup that should be good at “moving the baseball.” Then the sixth-year manager watched his team fail to meet those standards, putting itself in an 0-1 hole to begin the campaign.

"These are going to be some of the growing pains we have," Martinez said. "They're teaching moments. We're going to teach them, and we're going to get them to understand."

Under clear-blue skies but with a crisp, 45-degree chill in the air, the 19th season of Nationals baseball commenced on time at 1:05 p.m. Within minutes, Corbin was already trying to get out of his first jam of the season, Braves’ leadoff man Ronald Acuña Jr. already in scoring position.

Corbin didn’t pitch particularly well, but he also deserved better. Of the 11 batters who reached against him, six did so either via ground ball, error or single with an exit velocity under 80 mph. That’s to say nothing of the fly balls and popups that nearly were - or in a few cases actually were - lost in the sun.

"You try to get weak contact," Corbin said. "Sometimes they do hit it at people, sometimes they don't. I also think getting into better counts, trying to finish guys, could've helped at least keep the pitch count down."

The first of Abrams’ three errors was the most egregious, a booted grounder with the bases loaded that should’ve produced an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play but instead allowed an unearned run to score and the top of the second to continue. It would be four more Atlanta batters before the Nats finally could depart the field.

Abrams, who was also charged with two throwing errors later, was asked if the nerves of Opening Day perhaps got the best of him.

"A little bit, maybe," said the 22-year-old, who became only the sixth player in club history to commit three errors in one game. "But there's no excuses. I've got to be better."

"He's just got to understand situations," Martinez said. "Understand that the game is fast here. He's got to know who's running. He's got to anticipate that he's going to get the ball and where he's going to throw right away. This is something that a kid needs to work on and be consistent with."

So, Corbin deserved better. But he also didn’t help himself when he walked Austin Riley to force in a run, nor when he walked No. 9 hitter Orlando Arcia to prolong the third inning and extend his pitch count to dangerous levels.

Martinez let his veteran lefty take the mound for the top of the fourth, but that grace period only lasted one pitch. Once Matt Olson lofted a deep fly ball to the deepest corner of the park in left-center to open the inning, the Nationals manager emerged from the dugout and signaled for Erasmo Ramírez out of the bullpen.

Corbin’s disappointing Opening Day line included four runs (two earned), seven hits, three walks and 85 pitches in only three-plus innings.

"I didn't see him get out of control," catcher Keibert Ruiz said. "I just think he got some not-good luck in there. A lot of weak contact. But we've just got to move forward. That's going to happen. That's baseball."

Struggle as he did, Corbin did prevent the game from getting away from him altogether, at least giving his teammates a chance. They just had a tough time making the most of the opportunities they gave themselves, even after watching Braves starter Max Fried depart early with an injury.

Fried made it only one batter into the fourth before he had to cover first base on a grounder to the right side and grabbed his upper left thigh. After a mound visit from his manager and trainer and one attempted warm-up toss, the left-hander was removed with what the Braves termed left hamstring discomfort.

The Nationals scratched out only one run off Fried, though, and they did so only with the benefit of the second of two popups that were lost in the sun by Atlanta shortstop Arcia. That allowed Dominic Smith to reach on a cheap single to open the bottom of the second, advance to third on Ruiz’s double down the third base line and score on Alex Call’s sacrifice fly.

With a chance to add more, Luis García struck out, the first of multiple missed opportunities by Nats hitter to get a runner home from third with fewer than two outs.

"Those are the little things we need to do," Martinez said. "We've got to capitalize on driving those runs in, especially with less than two outs. We talk a lot about moving the baseball. We've got to do that."

Facing the Braves bullpen in the fifth, they plated their second run when Victor Robles singled, advanced on a pair of groundball outs and then scored on Joey Meneses’ second hit of the day, a two-out RBI single to center.

There were more opportunities the rest of the way, but nobody could deliver the clutch hit the Nationals so needed. They stranded at least one runner in each of the last eight innings, wasting inning-opening walks in both the seventh and eighth.

"It's a little difficult," Meneses said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Sometimes as hitters we just jump out early and take swings we don't want to. You've just got to remain focused and try to stay within our strike zone and look for a particular pitch and just be more patient."

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