The Nationals’ pitching woes have been front and center all week, and for good reason. Between injuries, a long rain delay and a bunch of ineffective starts, it has been a massive daily chore for Davey Martinez to simply squeeze nine innings from his staff, let along nine quality innings.
But let’s not discount the lineup’s role during the Nats’ current losing streak, which extended to six games this afternoon with a 5-3 loss to the Phillies in the opener of a day-night doubleheader.
The Nationals have scored an average of 2.7 runs during these last six games, making the games when the pitching staff has at least given them a chance unwinnable.
Such was the case on a scorching Friday afternoon on South Capitol Street, when fill-in starter Joan Adon was far from great but churned out five innings and gave his teammates an opportunity to emerge victorious, if only they could produce at the plate.
They could not. The Nats got an RBI double from Lane Thomas in the third, a two-run homer from Josh Bell in the sixth, and nothing more against Phillies starter Ranger Suárez and three relievers (including former closer Brad Hand, who pitched the ninth for the save).
"I'm looking for our lineup to explode one of these days," Martinez said. "We've been known to do it. We've been known to do it a couple days in a row. But we haven't had that. We score a couple, three runs here and there. But this lineup could really explode, and I'm still waiting for that big hit from somebody with a bunch of guys on base. We haven't seen that in a few days."
There were a handful of opportunities to do more, including in the bottom of the ninth, when Hand gave up a single to Luis García and then walked Victor Robles to bring the winning run to the plate. But Thomas grounded out, and former Phillie César Hernández struck out to end the game and leave his team 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
It never helps when Juan Soto goes 0-for-4 and grounds into a double play, in this case a sixth-inning 4-6-3 in which the star slugger didn't appear to be running as hard as he could down the line, irking his manager.
"He needs to start running balls out," Martinez said. "As you know, I don't care for that much. Everybody's hustling. Everybody's running. It's a groundball double play. I know his knee could be bothering him a little bit, but in those situations it's 90 feet. I just want good effort."
Martinez was asked if that's a conversation he's had with Soto.
"No, we've had it."
It had been only 10 days since Adon last pitched for the Nationals, then was optioned to Triple-A so he could work on refining some things in a lower-pressure environment. The plan was to keep him there for several weeks, if not more, then recall him when he proved ready to return, unless the club had a pressing need for pitching sooner than that.
Wouldn’t you know the club had a pressing need for pitching sooner than that.
With the rotation ravaged during this brutal stretch of 14 games in 13 days, the Nationals decided to use their allotted 27th man for the doubleheader not on a reliever but on a Game 1 starter, selecting Adon since it was already his day to pitch for Rochester. They understood it wasn’t an ideal scenario for the young right-hander, who didn’t really get much chance to work on his craft in the minors. But it was all they could for this one day.
For three innings, it looked like a bad idea. Adon labored heavily, taking all kinds of time between pitches and giving up some loud contact along the way. The Phillies scored twice in the first, both runs crossing the plate on Nick Castellanos’ double to the gap in right-center. They scored twice more in the third, getting another double from Castellanos (on a ball Soto seemed to misread in deep right field) and one from Alec Bohm to make it 4-0 and leave the crowd restless.
At that point, with his pitch count already at 69, Adon seemed unlikely to provide the length the Nats needed from him today. But to his credit, the right-hander figured something out and finished strong. He retired the last seven batters he faced, wound up with six strikeouts and only one walk and completed five innings on 97 pitches.
"Obviously, it was very important (to get through the fifth)," Adon said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "The longer we as starters can stay in the game, we can give our bullpen a little rest, which they needed, and also help us stay in the game to try to come back and maybe try to pull off a victory."
Encouraging signs or not, Adon nevertheless was charged with his 11th loss of the season. The Yankees, as a team, have lost 16 games.
"He'll go back down there and continue to work on some stuff," Martinez said. "But I really don't think he's that far away from coming back here and helping us win some games. He really threw the ball better."
Martinez then hoped to get two innings from Evan Lee to bridge the gap to the back of his bullpen, but the young lefty had a world of trouble throwing strikes. Lee walked four of the last five batters he faced, with two wild pitches thrown in there for good measure, before departing with a sore shoulder. Preliminary X-rays were negative, but Martinez said Lee will be getting an MRI.
"He says he doesn't really feel anything, but we want to make sure there's nothing in there," the manager said. "I just want to be real cautious with him. When he misses the strike zone like that, I thought there was something wrong with him."
In came Carl Edwards Jr., who had just as much trouble finding the strike zone at first. At one point, he and Lee combined to throw 13 consecutive balls. And yet, with the bases loaded and nobody out, the Phillies never scored and never even put a ball in play because Edwards struck out Odubel Herrera, Bohm and Bryson Stott, all looking, to escape the most ridiculous seventh inning you’ll ever see.
And yet, in spite of all that, the Nationals still had a chance to win this game. If only they could get a few clutch hits.
On this afternoon, that was too much to ask.
"When they're struggling as a staff, that's our job to dig them out of that hole," Thomas said. "It's been tough lately. We've been grinding at-bats out and doing what we can. But you know how it goes: Hits come and go. Hopefully we can get a few the next little bit."