Nats close out long, hot homestand with shutout loss (updated)

They would never say it publicly, but the Nationals sure could’ve used a day off at the end of a long, disgustingly hot homestand. Instead, the schedule-makers had them play back-to-back, four-game series, including this wraparound set against the Cardinals that started Friday evening and ended early this evening with a result that felt a bit too predictable.

Even though their gassed pitching staff got a much-needed boost in the form of seven strong innings by Mitchell Parker, the rest of the Nats slogged their way through an awfully quiet 6-0 loss to St. Louis that featured very little hitting and some less-than-crisp defense.

The lineup was shut down by veteran Miles Mikolas, who entered with a 5.19 ERA and proceeded to throw 6 1/3 scoreless innings, and the Cardinals bullpen. The defense got a couple of highlight-reel plays in left field by James Wood but was otherwise sloppy, committing two official errors and a couple more unofficial ones.

"Not good," manager Davey Martinez said. "You saw the game. It's not good. We've got to clean that up. We can't beat ourselves, and today we beat ourselves a little bit."

And so this homestand that saw the organization summon several young players from Triple-A and cut ties with several struggling veterans finally came to an end, not in rousing fashion but with a disappointing 3-5 record. And exhausted as they may be, the Nationals don’t get to rest yet. They now head to New York and Milwaukee, closing out the 17-day stretch of baseball required of them before they get to enjoy the All-Star break next week.

"I think mentally we know we don't have an off-day, so it's not too bad," said right fielder Lane Thomas, who has started 40 consecutive games since returning from a knee injury in late May. "I think when you start seeing the off-day close, it's a little harder. But we know what's ahead, so it's not too bad."

The hottest homestand in club history began on another scorcher of a July afternoon in D.C., with a first pitch temperature of 96 and a heat index of 104. Into that fire jumped Parker, hoping to do what the Nationals’ three other starters in this series failed to do and at least reach the sixth inning. The rookie did just that and more, and was pretty effective in the process aside from a couple of costly mistakes.

Parker’s grooved 3-1 fastball to Paul Goldschmidt in the top of the fourth could be excused, even if it did result in a solo homer to left. The defensive sequence that occurred one inning earlier, on the other hand, featured plenty of blame to go around.

It began with a grounder to the right side of the infield, in between first and second. Luis García Jr. might have had the easiest play on it, but Juan Yepez went and got the ball himself, then turned to toss the ball to his covering pitcher. The only problem: The pitcher wasn’t covering, with Parker breaking way too late to have any chance.

"He's got to understand: Once he throws the ball, he becomes a fielder," Martinez said.

Moments later, Michael Siani put down a bunt between the mound and first. Both Parker and Yepez converged on the ball, neither actually coming up with it. Back-to-back misplays, the kind that Parker, unfortunately, has been a part of too often in the last month. He was "penalized" for it last time with a personal session of pitchers fielding practice the following afternoon. He might just be booked for another private lesson Tuesday afternoon at Citi Field.

"Bottom line, I just have to get that," Parker said. "Between the half-step when I'm not covering first and getting that ground ball, I just can't let it happen."

In spite of those miscues, Parker was still in position to escape the third inning with no damage when he struck out Masyn Winn and got Alec Burleson to ground to third. But with the Nats infield shaded, it was the shortstop attempting to turn the 5-6-3 double play, and CJ Abrams’ throw skipped past Yepez at first base, allowing a run to score even though the ball never left the infield the entire inning.

Those mistakes were annoying, yes, but they didn’t define Parker’s start. He was quite good once again, not to mention efficient. Issuing only one walk and keeping his pitch count to 91, he completed seven innings of two-run ball. And one of those runs, officially, was unearned.

"Just doing my job," he said. "It's what we need. It's what I'm here for, to take up as many innings as I can."

And yet Parker departed in line for the loss because his teammates couldn’t make a dent in Mikolas.

There were only a couple of reasonable scoring opportunities against the veteran right-hander. The Nationals put two men on in the bottom of the first, but Keibert Ruiz lined out to left to end that inning. Ruiz produced a two-out double in the bottom of the fourth, but García followed with a groundout to first. They had two on with one out in the fifth, but Abrams grounded out and Thomas swung at what would’ve been ball four and instead popped up to shallow right field, leaving James Wood on deck.

The Nationals never drew a walk in 6 1/3 innings against Mikolas. They went 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position.

"I think he always fills the strike zone up with a mixture of different stuff," said Thomas, who went 1-for-4. "He gets a lot of soft contact. So sometimes you can get to him, because a lot of those hits get through. And sometimes, like today, they don't get through."

On a day when their pitching was more than good enough to win, their offense - and their defense - wasn’t close to good enough. And as much as everyone would love a chance to take a deep breath, the schedule remains unforgiving for one more week.

"Look, this is the time of year where it's tiring," Martinez said. "We know the break is coming up. We've got to push a little bit. Everybody's tired. The Cardinals are tired. We're tired. We're going to go play the Mets; they're going to be tired. We've got to find a way. And the best way to do it is to focus on the little things. We've got to start focusing on the little things, and not beat ourselves."

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