Offense quiet again as Nats lose 2-1 again (updated)

SAN DIEGO – Ask Davey Martinez if he’d be satisfied to get a 2.86 ERA out of his pitching staff over a full week, and the Nationals manager wouldn’t just say he’s satisfied. He’d jump for joy out of his shoelaces.

Martinez has been waiting all year for a sustained stretch of quality pitching like this, the kind of stretch he used to expect from his star-studded rotation of 2018-20 but hasn’t realistically been plausible this season.

Ah, but here’s the rub: Just as the Nats pitching staff has put together its best weeklong stretch in ages, the Nats lineup has gone limp. That group, admittedly depleted by trades and injuries, has scored only 23 runs over the same seven games, four of which have now been losses.

Today’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Padres was the latest and most aggravating of the bunch. Less than 24 hours after losing by the exact same score via a pair of solo homers from former teammates Josh Bell and Juan Soto, the Nationals lost today’s game via a two-run homer from Bell, who accounted for all of San Diego’s offense.

Bell’s opposite-field shot off Patrick Corbin in the bottom of the sixth was all the Padres needed. That’s because the Nats managed just one run-scoring hit of their own, and that was Nelson Cruz’s towering (but solo) homer to left in the fourth.

"I think we're playing pretty good," said Cruz, one of the few remaining experienced hitters in the lineup at this point. "Everything is our pitching. They're the key of keeping us in the game. I mean, the loss yesterday and the loss today, we had the chance to win the game late in the game. They're the reason why we're playing better."

Cruz’s 440-foot moonshot, which struck just below the letter N on the Western Metal Supply Co. building and caromed back to the fourth-floor balcony of the historic building, was the most jaw-dropping moment of the afternoon. It was the 42-year-old’s longest homer of the season, and the best contact he’s made since coming to D.C. in what could be the final season of his storied career.

"It feels good, especially to get the lead," Cruz said of his 10th homer of the year, the 459th of his career. "Unfortunately, we don't get a W. That's what really matters."

But the Nationals needed more than that, and they didn’t come close to getting it against Sean Manaea. The San Diego starter carved up the rest of the lineup with ease, throwing a mere 69 pitches over seven innings to put his team in position to win.

Martinez likes an aggressive approach, with hitters hunting good fastballs early in the count. But the number of quick outs his team hit into today surely didn’t help anything.

"We knew that he was going to pound the strike zone," manager Davey Martinez said. "We've just got to get ready to hit the fastball. It seems like we were a little behind on some pitches, a little late. Just get up there and get ready to hit the fastball. Today, we missed a lot of fastballs." 

That this latest bout of offensive ineptitude came on the same day Corbin put together a decent start left an even more sour taste in everyone’s mouths.

The way the bottom of the first went, Corbin couldn’t have realistically believed he’d eventually find himself still on the mound come the bottom of the sixth. It required 30 pitches (only 15 of them strikes) to five batters to complete his opening frame, with four of those batters reaching a 3-2 count. Corbin, though, escaped without anybody so much as reaching third base thanks to a well-timed pickoff throw to catch Wil Myers and a big strikeout of Bell on a full-count fastball.

"I was just missing a little bit, both sides of the plate," he said. "I was down, just a little off there. I knew I threw 30 pitches there, but I felt pretty good where my misses were and thought I'd be able to correct it."

Things got better from there. Though he never enjoyed a 1-2-3 inning, Corbin did prevent the Padres from stringing anything together through the fifth. There were, however, some loud outs as the game progressed, and that all came to a head in the bottom of the sixth.

It began with a leadoff hustle double from Brandon Drury, whose line drive hit to left-center was just far enough from Alex Call to allow him to scamper 180 feet before the rookie left fielder could cleanly retrieve the ball and throw it in. And moments later came the big blast, from an old friend.

Nationals fans can attest to this: When Bell goes cold, he goes really cold. And when he gets hot, he gets red-hot. The cold streak (1-for-32, including 0-for-20 against the Nats) ended Saturday night with a solo homer off Josiah Gray. And the hot streak continued this afternoon when Bell reached out for Corbin’s 2-1 fastball and drove it down the right field for a two-run homer to give the Padres the lead.

"Up," Martinez said of the pitch. "Bit us twice. Ball's up. We've got to get the ball down there. That was the plan."

Corbin’s day would end two batters later. He was pulled after going 5 1/3 innings, having allowed two runs while throwing 97 pitches. It hardly qualified as a strong start. But the way this miserable season has gone for him, it certainly qualified as another small step in the right direction.

"I think, overall, it was pretty good today," he said. "I had a really good fastball. My sinker was good. Just the one pitch to Bell ... he's strong and put a really good swing on it. I'm just pleased with how it went, other than we lost the game."

Even so, Corbin departed in line for his 17th loss of the year. Of the 34 big league pitchers who have lost 17 or more games since 2001, none finished with an ERA over 6.00. After today’s outing, Corbin’s ERA is 6.81.

"But he pitched well," Martinez said. "Patrick pitched really well. I'll take those outings from him. The last two outings, I thought he pitched well. It was all our offense today. We had no offense."

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