The Nationals continue to do enough to keep themselves engaged in close ballgames, right through the final out of the ninth. And they continue to do just enough to keep themselves from emerging victorious by losing the second half of close ballgames.
Whether by bullpen struggle or punchless lineup, the Nats just aren’t delivering in meaningful situations when they have a chance to seize control of a game late. It’s happened several times over the last two-plus weeks, and it happened again this evening during a 6-4 loss to the Guardians that was there for the taking but never captured by the home club.
The Nationals’ 11th loss in their first 15 games followed an all-too-familiar script. They had a brief burst of offense early, scoring three runs in the bottom of the first. Then they let the opposition catch up and then overtake them by the top of the fifth. And then they did very little at the plate themselves the rest of the way, shut down by Cleveland’s bullpen to suffer yet another loss by slim margin.
Four of the Nats’ last six losses have come by only one run. The others were a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Shohei Ohtani on Tuesday night in Anaheim, then this two-run loss that had been a one-run game until Josh Bell produced a big insurance run for the Guardians in the top of the ninth.
The common theme in all of these losses: A lack of execution in the later innings. Entering tonight, the Nationals owned a solid .751 OPS in innings 1-3, a respectable .702 OPS in innings 4-6 but a paltry .486 OPS in innings 7-9.
"We have one or two good innings, and then we just don't tack on runs," manager Davey Martinez said. "We've got to get better at that."
There were opportunities to reverse that trend tonight in a game that began 1 hour and 40 minutes late due to heavy, late-afternoon rain. Back-to-back, one-out singles by Luis García and Keibert Ruiz in the bottom of the eighth put runners on the corners and gave Lane Thomas and CJ Abrams a chance to drive in the tying run, if not the go-ahead run.
Alas, Thomas struck out looking at a well-placed, 3-2 curveball by James Karinchak. Abrams then struck out swinging at another curveball from the Guardians reliever, this one in the dirt.
"We took fastballs. We've got to be ready to hit," Martinez said. "We talk about that all the time: 0-0, be ready to hit the first-pitch fastball. That guy has a good breaking ball, we know that. You've got to hit the fastball. He threw one to Lane right there that he should've jumped on. And then he threw another one (to Abrams) and got ahead, and he chased a breaking ball. We've got to hit the fastball."
So it was the Nationals who failed to add a second come-from-behind victory to their 2023 tally. They’ve now lost five games they led at any point, several of them early, as was the case tonight.
"We've just got to get more rallies, later in the games," said Ruiz, who finished with three hits in one of his best offensive showings of the young season. "Especially against the bullpen. They've got a really good bullpen, but we've got to clean a lot of stuff, including myself. We've got to swing at good pitches with men in scoring position."
In Friday’s series opener, the Nationals took a 3-0 lead in the fourth, only to give it all back and more. This time, they took a 3-0 lead in the first, only to give it all back and more.
The good, from an offensive standpoint: RBI hits by Joey Meneses, Jeimer Candelario and Ruiz, driving up Guardians starter Zach Plesac’s pitch count to 32 after only one inning. The bad: The lineup then went ice cold for a couple innings, allowing Plesac to complete the third with his pitch count at a very manageable 49.
The good, from a pitching standpoint: Chad Kuhl kept Cleveland off the board in the top of the first despite a leadoff walk and more balls (nine) than strikes (eight). The bad: His command woes continued from there, and he paid the price for it, allowing a run in the second and then two more in the fourth, with each of those runs scored by batters who initially reached via four-pitch walk. Three stolen bases also cost Kuhl, who didn’t do a great job giving Ruiz a chance behind the plate.
"Chad's got to do a better job of holding guys on," Martinez said. "When he was slide-stepping, it was better. But he's got to understand when those guys get on, they're very athletic."
In spite of all that, the Nationals sent their starter back to the mound for the top of the fifth with a 4-3 lead thanks to Ruiz’s second RBI hit of the evening, this one a double to the gap in right-center that scored García from first. They needed Kuhl only to complete one more inning before handing things over to the bullpen, but even that proved too difficult for the right-hander.
Kuhl’s undoing came during a four-batter span in the fifth. It began with a triple off the center field wall by Amed Rosario that left Victor Robles twisted around and chasing the ball after it caromed back toward the infield. Three pitches later, Kuhl hung a 3-0 slider to Jose Ramirez, who mashed it into the second deck in right-center for a two-run homer and a 5-4 Cleveland lead.
"I figured he was taking," Kuhl said of the 3-0 pitch. "But he put a good swing on it. Just tried to backdoor it, and it ended up kind of right down the middle."
A Bell double later in the inning officially ended the night for Kuhl, who wound up throwing 96 pitches in 4 2/3 innings, departing with an 8.59 ERA and 1.705 WHIP through his first three starts with the Nationals.
"I'm not making it easier on myself by letting guys on base, walks," he said. "A frustrating spot to be in, but only three starts in. I've got a good idea how to get on track and go from there."