For 2 hours, 48 minutes Tuesday night, a severely depleted Nationals lineup rode youthful emotion (and an excellent performance from its pitching staff) to a most unlikely victory over the first-place Mets. An otherwise depressing day during a depressing season at least included this uplifting note on the field.
Then reality set back in this afternoon. That same lineup was shut out by Mets starter Chris Bassitt, while Aníbal Sánchez, Jordan Weems and the pitching staff was roughed by New York’s potent lineup during a 9-5 thrashing in the finale of their three-game series that only seemed close because of a furious, five-run rally in the bottom of the ninth.
As this all played out, Juan Soto and Josh Bell were being introduced as the newest members of the Padres during a press conference at Petco Park, inserted by manager Bob Melvin into an already fearsome lineup as his new No. 2 and No. 4 hitters.
It was a stark reminder of what transpired back here at Nationals Park one day earlier, and what that means the rest of this season (and perhaps beyond) will look like for the local ballclub.
"Soto and Bell were a big part of the team," Sánchez said. "But at the end, we have to understand that baseball is like that. I think everybody is ready to play every single day. Everything happened one day. I think the next day, everybody ... it's not about forgetting, but they're ready to play."
Today’s game, at least until the ninth, featured the Nats at their worst. They sent an aging starter to the mound in Sánchez, then watched as he lasted only 4 1/3 innings, charged with five runs (four earned) to fall to 0-4 with a 7.65 ERA in four starts. They hoped Jordan Weems could help Sánchez out and get out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth, only to watch as the reliever immediately served up a grand slam to Daniel Vogelbach, plus two more runs in the sixth to blow the game open.
And though this often happened even when Soto and Bell were in the lineup, the Nationals were completely shut down by an opposing starter, in this case Bassitt, who tossed seven scoreless innings and barely broke a sweat on a 93-degree August afternoon. Only a last-ditch, bottom-of-the-ninth rally featuring solo homers by Keibert Ruiz and Lane Thomas and five consecutive two-out hits to produce a 5-spot on the scoreboard prevented them from being shut out.
"We had some decent at-bats throughout the game," manager Davey Martinez said. "But the last inning, they stayed deep, they started using the middle of the field. If we would've done that a little earlier, things would've been different. But they battled back. I've always said these guys are relentless. They aren't going to quit. They're going to play to the last out, and we scored five runs there. Obviously, it wasn't enough."
Thus did the Nats fall to 36-70 for the season, the worst record in the majors. At this point, they would need to somehow go 27-29 the rest of the way to avoid finishing with 100 losses. They need to go 17-39 to avoid amassing 110 losses for the first time in club history.
If Martinez wants to avoid those ignominious outcomes, he’s going to have to figure out a way to get some kind of production from his gutted lineup. For the second straight day, he had 34-year-old Yadiel Hernandez as his No. 3 hitter. But this time, with 42-year-old Nelson Cruz sidelined with a stiff neck, he had 30-year-old rookie Joey Meneses batting cleanup.
Meneses, who homered in his major league debut Tuesday night, would get a couple of early opportunities to drive in runs but wound up grounding into a pair of double plays (something even the highly productive Bell did more than anyone else in the league).
Thomas would ground into a double play of his own in the seventh, giving the Nationals a league-leading 103 of them in 106 games this season.
"It was Bassitt mixing his pitches up," Martinez said. "He had a good two-seamer, a good cutter, and his curveball was pretty good. But he kept the ball down for the most part and used both sides of the plate."
The Nationals will have another experienced bat in their lineup Thursday in Philadelphia, with first baseman Luke Voit joining them two days after he was acquired as part of the blockbuster trade with the Padres. Voit will take the roster spot that has been held by Alcides Escobar, the veteran middle infielder (and twice emergency relief pitcher) whom the team requested unconditional release waivers on after today's game.
They did pick up 13 hits, but 11 of them were singles, off Bassitt and a trio of relievers. Four of those singles came off the bat of Ildemaro Vargas, a 31-year-old utility man called up from Triple-A Rochester this week to replace 32-year-old utility man Ehire Adrianza upon his trade to the Braves.
Vargas, who has a reputation as a smooth defensive player, would be charged with an error when he dropped a routine line drive to third and then fired his subsequent throw well wide of second base and into right field in the top of the fifth.
"I'm excited, happy about my results offensively," Vargas said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "But at the same time, I was disappointed with that error that unfortunately cost Sánchez a few runs. So I was a little disappointed about that error, but overall I'm happy that things went well at the plate."
That misplay indeed cost Sánchez, the 38-year-old right-hander back with the Nationals after sitting out the 2021 season, but he didn’t exactly pitch well himself. Sánchez was again done in by a home run, in this case Pete Alonso’s two-run blast to center moments after Sánchez couldn’t put away Francisco Lindor during what became a nine-pitch walk.
"I just tried to throw one strike (to Alonso)," Sánchez said. "Especially because I had a really long at-bat against Lindor. I don't want to keep missing a pitch, or throwing it for a ball, or starting with that pitch that he's chasing for a ball. I just want to get ahead in the count, but that didn't happen."
Martinez wouldn’t let Sánchez pitch to Alonso again the next time he came up. With one out in the fifth, he had the veteran starter intentionally walk the Mets cleanup hitter, then summoned Weems from the bullpen to try to escape the bases-loaded jam. Five pitches later, Daniel Vogelbach had belted a grand slam into the right field bullpen, all but sealing the Nationals’ fate.
"I liked Weems there, because he could locate his fastball away, and then with two strikes, his changeup would've been a great pitch," Martinez said. "They happened to go with the fastball there. Him going away, the ball just cut on him and it got in. He didn't hit it great, but he hit it enough. Next time through the order, he threw his changeup, struck him out. So ..."