Nats lose ninth straight after long rain delay (updated)

If money alone isn’t going to be enough to keep Juan Soto in Washington for the long haul – and today’s revelation that Soto recently turned down a 15-year, $440 million extension suggests it is indeed about more than just money, at least at this juncture of the process – the best thing the Nationals can do to convince their young star to stay is to start winning ballgames.

That, as it turns out, is an even more daunting task these days than coming up with a contract number Soto will accept.

Today’s 6-3 loss to the Braves, which included a 1-hour, 49-minute rain delay in the eighth inning, was the Nationals’ ninth consecutive loss, their ninth in a row to Atlanta, their 15th in their last 16 games overall. This is their first nine-game losing streak since 2008, when they lost a club-record 12 in a row. At 30-63, they own the worst record in the majors and would need to go an unlikely 33-36 the rest of the way just to avoid finishing with 100 losses.

All of which begs the question: Why would Soto agree to a new deal, even if it set records, before seeing some evidence of improvement from the franchise he helped win a World Series only three years ago?

“I mean, at the end of the day, you’re going to get what you deserve, we all know that,” manager Davey Martinez said before the game. “And for me, I hope it’s here. Because I love the kid. I don’t ever think that he’s anything else but a Washington National, and that’s the way I’m going to view it right now. He is a Washington National.”

Soto indeed remains a National. Perhaps the odds of him remaining a National come Aug. 2 have decreased somewhat with today’s news. But he’s still here today and will be Sunday before flying to Los Angeles to represent the organization in the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game.

Maybe a couple of days in the sunshine, surrounded by fellow star players, will help Soto forget about the miserable week he just experienced here.

"It won't do any damage to my weekend," he insisted. "I'm going to try to enjoy as much as I can. I know it feels a little uncomfortable at the beginning, but I will be fine."

A crowd of 37,880, second-largest of the season, packed into Nationals Park for a late-afternoon Saturday matchup between two opponents who have nothing in common at this point except for the World Series title each has won in the last three years.

The Nats entered having lost eight straight to the Braves, in nearly each case digging themselves into an early hole created by a sustained power display by their opponents. So did it surprise anyone when Atlanta stormed out to a 4-0 lead today via back-to-back homers in the top of the third off Paolo Espino?

Espino thought he would be facing Matt Olson with one on and two out, but replay officials in New York determined first baseman Josh Bell didn’t keep his foot on the bag on a throw across the diamond from Maikel Franco off Dansby Swanson’s grounder to third. So that left two on with only one out as Olson dug in, making his subsequent three-run homer off a changeup all the more damaging to Espino.

Moments later, Austin Riley went deep yet again, blasting a 3-1 pitch to center field to make it 4-0 and give the All-Star slugger four homers in his last five games against the Nats. Not that Riley is the only one who does this to the Nationals. His homer was merely the 31st by a Braves player in 12 games against them this season, a staggeringly high total.

"It's definitely a tough lineup," Espino said. "Anybody can hit for them. The one thing you can do is, whenever it happens, try to minimize. It wasn't the case today."

Espino, to his credit, was solid outside of that killer sequence in the third. He wound up going 5 1/3 innings without allowing any more runs, striking out five without issuing any walks. It didn’t go down as a quality start, but under these circumstances against this opponent, it was about as quality as it was likely to get.

"One inning," Espino lamented. "Everything happened in just one inning. I try to take the positives. In the end, overall I think I pitched the ball well."

It was, however, still too much for the feeble Nationals lineup to overcome. For the umpteenth time this summer, they got plenty of production from their two best hitters, and hardly any from everybody else.

Soto and Josh Bell did their part, going a combined 5-for-6 off Braves starter Max Fried, with Bell driving in a run apiece in the fourth and sixth innings. The only other RBI off Fried, though, came from Keibert Ruiz on a run-scoring groundout. (And Ruiz grounded into double plays in his two other at-bats, raising the Nats’ season total an major league-high 94.)

"It's been tough," Martinez said. "We talk about this almost every single day: We've got to get some of these guys going. They've got to contribute offensively. It's just been a tough go."

And even when the Nationals seemed to have some positive momentum, trimming the deficit to 4-3 after the sixth, Hunter Harvey gave two runs right back in the top of the seventh, the first time the hard-throwing reliever has been scored upon in seven big league appearances this season.

That made it a 6-3 game when the rain arrived prior to the bottom of the eighth, leaving everyone in a sour mood before play resumed nearly two hours later.

The Nationals would go down quietly after that, extending the losing streak to nine game. Now they head into Sunday's first-half finale, left to go with a bullpen game instead of adding another pitcher for a one-off start. That bullpen, though, may be without Tyler Clippard, whose left leg cramped while warming up, preventing him from pitching the top of the eighth as planned.

Such is the backdrop for a team that will somehow try to avoid heading into the All-Star break on a 10-game losing streak.

"It would be nice to come out there tomorrow and get a victory, it really would," Martinez said. "What I do know is these guys are going to come out and play hard. Every day, these guys don't let up. They keep going. We're going to go out there tomorrow, compete and see what happens."

Game 94 lineups: Nats vs. Braves
Soto frustrated $440 million offer became public

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