Nats go quiet at plate again, can't sweep Twins (updated)

MINNEAPOLIS – The Nationals aren’t going to score 10 runs every day. They know that. They know as much fun as Saturday’s lopsided win over the Twins was, that’s not often going to be their path to victory.

For these Nationals to win, execution in key moments is imperative. If they only provide themselves with a handful of legitimate scoring opportunities each game, they’re going to have to make the most of them and hope their pitching is good enough to make it stand up.

The pitching was good enough this afternoon at Target Field. Patrick Corbin gave up three runs in six innings, a quality start that can only be deemed a success for the long-struggling left-hander. The lineup, however, did not come close to making the most of its few scoring opportunities, in one particular instance giving away outs in spectacular fashion to help make a 3-1 loss to Minnesota possible.

Thus did the Nats fail to do something they haven’t done in nearly two years: sweep a three-game series, last achieved in June 2021 against the Pirates. And they certainly didn’t do something they hadn’t done in nearly four years: sweep a road series, last achieved in August 2019 against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

"The guys played hard, and they played hard today," manager Davey Martinez said. "To come out of here, when these guys have been playing well, and win two out of three with a day off coming up tomorrow, it feels good."

The Nationals were victorious in this weekend’s opener thanks to a late rally. They were victorious in Saturday’s middle game thanks to sustained offense throughout. They lost today’s finale because they couldn’t muster any real offense of consequence, held to three hits and four walks.

As they did Saturday afternoon, the Nationals jumped out to a quick lead in the top of the first, getting an RBI double from Keibert Ruiz to get things going. Unlike the previous day, they could not sustain that early offense, and were left to try to make that one run hold up for a while.

Right-hander Bailey Ober, promoted from Triple-A this morning to make his first big league start of the season, would go on to retire 10 of the next 11 batters he faced. And even when the Nationals did finally start putting runners on base, they squandered the opportunity in ugly fashion.

CJ Abrams’ leadoff single in the fifth represented the team’s first hit since Ruiz’s big double in the first. Victor Robles then stepped up to the plate, and if you’ve followed the No. 9 hitter at all over the last several seasons, you knew what was coming next. Robles squared around and bunted Ober’s first pitch, the ball traveling all of two inches before it came to a stop in front of the plate. Twins catcher Ryan Jeffers picked it up and fired to second to nail Abrams. And with Robles pausing a second before running down the line, he was thrown out to complete a killer 2-6-3 double play.

"I got confused myself," Robles said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "I just assumed it was a foul ball."

"You can't assume it's a foul ball. He's just got to run," Davey Martinez said. "I don't know how many times I've got to tell him. He's not an umpire. He's got to run hard to first base."

If that wasn’t tough enough to stomach, Alex Call followed with a single, then got picked off trying to steal second to end an inning that saw the Nationals send three batters to the plate, get hits from two of them, yet never even advance anyone to second base.

Martinez defended the strategy of having Robles bunt in these situations.

"Look, Victor struggles on sliders; we all know that," the manager said. "I think right there at that point in time, if we can get (Abrams) to second base and give Alex a shot to drive him in. If he bunts the ball well, he could bunt for a base hit, as well. In that situation there, we're trying to get a run, get back in the game, see if we can get something started that way. It just didn't happen."

"When I feel like I'm swinging the bat well, I don't like to do it as often," Robles said of his frequent instructions to bunt. "But obviously, that's not my call sometimes. The manager asked for it, so I try to do it when I'm called upon to do it. Obviously, I'm a little embarrassed when things don't go the way we want them to and execute the bunt like I should. Today, that's what happened." 

That sequence came shortly after the Twins had taken a 2-1 lead, a lead achieved by a pair of blasts off Corbin. The lefty did put some runners on base, but kept anyone from scoring until the fourth, when Jorge Polanco belted a changeup down the left field line and watched it doink off the foul pole for a leadoff homer.

Two batters later, it was Michael A. Taylor producing a 444-foot bomb to left-center, the kind of contact Nationals fans used to love seeing from their old center fielder in various spurts from 2014-20.

"A mistake pitch that I paid for," Corbin said of the fastball he threw to his fellow 2019 World Series champion. "I'd like to have better location there, or maybe spin it in there. But he's done that. He did it for us here. Good player."

The Twins would add another run in the fifth when Corbin issued a two-out walk of Jose Miranda, then surrendered back-to-back singles to Jeffers and Polanco. But he limited the damage to that, tossed a quick 1-2-3 bottom of the sixth and emerged with his second straight quality start.

Five starts into his season, Corbin’s overall numbers (1-3, 5.88 ERA, 1.692 WHIP) don’t exactly inspire confidence. But he hasn’t suffered the kind of blowups that defined too many of his starts the last three years; he’s completed six innings three times and he mostly has given his team a chance. In this case, that qualifies as progress.

"He's pounding the strike zone, keeping the ball down," Martinez said. "We worked really hard with him toward the end of last year and all winter long to get the ball down. When he throws the ball down, his stuff is really good."

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