SEATTLE – You wouldn’t think it based on the historic negative streak they keep extending every night, but the Nationals are getting good pitching out of their rotation right now. Four times in their last five games, Nats starters have gone at least five innings while allowing one or two runs.
And yet this team has now gone 40 consecutive games without seeing one of its starters earn a win, the longest such streak of futility in modern major league history.
Erick Fedde did his part to try to end the run tonight, tossing five strong innings in his return from the injured list, but it mattered not because the Nationals lineup remained lifeless at the plate, getting no-hit for six innings by Robbie Ray, then settling for Joey Meneses’ solo homer before falling 4-2 to the Mariners.
It was yet another woeful showing by the Nats, who have scored four total runs over their last three games, dropping all three despite their pitchers having allowed only eight runs in those games.
"We've got to get our offense going," manager Davey Martinez said. "We've got to put the ball in play a little bit more. We've got to stay in the middle of the field. We've got to get on for our big guys, and they've got to start driving in runs."
At this point, the threat of the first no-hitter ever thrown against the Nationals looms large just about any night they take the field with their trade-depleted lineup. To wit: They’ve now gone hitless through at least five innings five different times this season, four of those coming in the last two months alone.
So nobody could’ve been surprised when Ray burst out of the gates tonight and began mowing these guys down. The 30-year-old left-hander, drafted by the Nationals way back in June 2010 and then traded to the Tigers for Doug Fister in December 2013, retired the first nine batters he faced with ease, doing so on only 43 pitches.
Alex Call drew a walk to open the fourth but would be picked off trying to steal second too soon to end the inning. César Hernández drew a two-out walk in the fifth but went nowhere. And when Ray struck out two more batters during a perfect bottom of the sixth, he found himself in serious position to make history.
"About the fourth inning, I started thinking: 'He's got a no-hitter.' You start thinking about it," Martinez said. "For some reason, our bats come alive after the sixth inning. We've got to start jumping on starters early, and then work from there. That's the key. I always try to tell these guys to score first, but we've got to do it early."
It came late, but Meneses did come to the rescue at last in the seventh. The 30-year-old rookie had been on something of a power drought, going eight straight games without homering after hitting five of them in the first nine games of his career. He found that stroke again tonight, blasting Ray’s 2-1 fastball to center field and just beyond Julio Rodríguez’s leaping attempt for the leadoff home run that ended the no-hit bid and put the Nats on the board, trimming their deficit to 2-1.
"It's not so much pressure as it is focus," Meneses said of trying to break up a no-hitter, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Make sure you go up to that at-bat looking for a particular pitch. And don't get first-pitch outs with a pitcher's pitch. In that situation, I was just looking for a good pitch I could handle and make hard contact."
Ray would be pulled three batters later, his pitch count up to 103, the crowd of 38,254 greeting the lefty with a standing ovation as he walked back to the dugout.
Despite their offensive woes, the Nationals were still very much in the game at that point, thanks to Fedde’s strong return from the IL. The right-hander had missed more than three weeks with shoulder inflammation but was sharp in his one rehab start and picked up right where he left off.
Fedde didn’t allow a run for three innings, and the lone hit he surrendered at that point came on Carlos Santana’s bunt single to a wide open left side of the Nats infield. He would open the fourth with a hiccup, allowing a leadoff single to Carlos Santana, then watched his 2-0 sinker tail back over the plate to Eugenio Suárez, who launched it deep to left for a two-run homer and a 2-0 Mariners lead.
"It was a 2-0, and I tried to be aggressive down and away," Fedde said. "He's a really good hitter inside. And when the ball travels to the inside of the plate, they see it for a long time. Bad location on my part, and bad job getting down 2-0."
Fedde would bounce right back, though, and retire the last six batters he faced, four via strikeout. He was pulled after throwing only 81 pitches over five innings, a reflection of his recent IL stint more than his performance tonight, of which he was quite pleased.
"Super," he said. "I wish I wouldn't have given up the home run and kept the game tied. But overall, I couldn't be happier with where I am with my stuff. Good improvement. I'm glad I took the time to get healthy and slowly get back. ... I feel like that's the guy I haven't been able to be all year."