MILWAUKEE – Much as they might want to convince themselves otherwise, the Nationals can’t win baseball games without scoring runs. Oh, they’ve put this theory to the test for more than a week now, and night after night they have been proven wrong.
Perhaps some teams have the pitching staff to win with one run of support. This team doesn’t.
Six times in their last nine games the Nats have either been shut out or scored one run. They have, unsurprisingly, lost all six of those games, including tonight’s 5-1 loss to the Brewers.
Not that they don’t have the ability on any random night to explode at the plate. In their 13 wins to date this season, the Nationals have averaged 7.7 runs.
Alas, in their 28 losses, they’ve now averaged 2.1 runs. That’s a tough way to live life in the big leagues.
"Continue the process, even when things aren't going your way," first baseman Josh Bell said. "You can go 0-for-4, and it's four balls to the outfield that could've been sac flies in different scenarios. If you continue to play the game the right way, it will reward you. It's just a conversation in the clubhouse. If we can get things going, we'll turn things around."
It didn't get turned around tonight at American Family Field, where Patrick Corbin again wasn’t particularly effective, surrendering five runs in five innings despite a prolonged stretch of success in the middle of his outing. It didn’t really matter much how he pitched, though, because his teammates continue not to produce at the plate with any measure of consistency.
The Nationals don’t hit for any power. They went an entire week without a home run. And among the biggest culprits are the guys who bat in the heart of their lineup.
"When you think about it as a whole, when the team's not scoring, there's times when you feel like you have to do a little bit more," manager Davey Martinez said. "We don't. I tell the guys every day: I just need you to be yourself. Don't try to drive in five runs with one swing. It's not going to happen. Just take your walks, get the ball in the strike zone, get ready to swing and put a good swing on it."
Juan Soto went into this game with only two hits in his last 17 at-bats, then went 0-for-3 with a walk, leaving his batting average at .245. As with his previous slumps since reaching the big leagues, most of his outs are coming on ground balls. He’s also getting increasingly frustrated with borderline calls by umpires behind the plate, including Stu Scheurwater tonight.
But there also appears to be an intangible aspect to this particular slump, one that has the unflappable slugger searching for answers.
"I've been feeling kind of weird," Soto said of his recent at-bats. "I've been working a lot on my swing, trying to figure out what's going on. It's pretty tough to get back to where it was. I've been watching my videos and all that stuff. But it is what it is. Right now, I've been just up and down. Sometimes I feel good, sometimes I feel weird. But it is what it is."
Nelson Cruz has struggled all season long, aside from one brief uptick that saw the 41-year-old designated hitter deliver two homers and 10 RBIs over a 12-game stretch from April 29-May 14. Since then, he’s 3-for-19 with zero RBIs.
And even Bell has lost the mojo that made him one of the league’s most productive hitters through the season’s first six weeks. His batting average was at .349 on May 11. Since then, he has gone 5-for-34 and seen that average drop to .301.
"Speaking for myself, I can take responsibility," Bell said. "I've had a rough stretch of late. It kind of shows in the box score, and it shows in the score. I wouldn't say I'm putting more pressure on myself. I just understand the gravity of my at-bats, and if I can string things together. Juan and Nellie are the same way. We play well, the team goes right where we want to go. It starts tomorrow."
It didn't start tonight for those three hitters, with Cruz the only one to reach base, and even those came on an infield single and catcher’s interference. The lone big hit from a Nationals batter tonight came from Lane Thomas, who one night after getting thrown out at the plate trying to stretch a triple into an inside-the-park homer was able to coast around the bases with no fear after blasting an 0-2 fastball from Brandon Woodruff over the fence in left leading off the top of the third.
That one run wasn’t going to be nearly enough support for Corbin on this night. It wasn’t even enough support for one inning of Corbin’s work, because the Brewers jumped on him for two runs in the bottom of the first alone.
Andrew McCutchen ambushed the lefty’s very first pitch and drove it to right-center for a leadoff homer. Singles by Luis Urías and Christian Yelich followed, then a sacrifice fly by Hunter Renfroe that reached the warning track in center field to put the Nationals in a quick 2-0 hole.
"They were really aggressive," Corbin said. "I'm trying to attack the zone and get into good counts like that. Yesterday, they weren't swinging as much. But kind of a veteran team over team. Today, they had a different game plan."
Corbin, to his credit, quickly settled down and retired 14-of-16 batters during one prolonged stretch. But he couldn’t finish strong, giving up three more runs with two outs in the bottom of the fifth, surrendering a homer to Urias (also on a first-pitch fastball) and Kesten Hiura’s bases-loaded single later in the inning.
Thus did Corbin depart the game in line for his seventh loss against zero wins, his ERA back up to 6.60 through nine starts this season.
"It's been tough, for sure," he said. "I've been dealing with it for a while now. But you've got to come in and keep trying to prepare for the next one. It's a long season. I know where I've been. But I do feel good, and I feel like we've had some good results. I've just got to continue to make pitches."