Offensively challenged Nats drop series opener to Rays (updated)

The Nationals understand they’re not going to hit many home runs this season. That’s just not in the cards with this particular lineup, which features nobody who hit more than 17 homers last year.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t deliver the occasional extra-base hit, some doubles or even a triple. Or, you know, hit the ball in the air every once in a while.

Even that seemingly simple act proved difficult tonight during a 6-2 loss to the Rays. Tampa Bay rode six dominant innings from starter Drew Rasmussen and effective work from their bullpen to cruise to victory on a 70-degree Monday evening in the nation’s capital. The evening would’ve been perfectly pleasant if only the home club was able to give those who attended any valid reason to believe a rally was possible.

Instead, a paid crowd of 10,754 – officially the second-lowest in Nationals history, ahead of only the 9,261 who were announced as attending the first half of a makeup doubleheader against the Diamondbacks last April – was left to watch the lineup flail away at Tampa Bay’s admittedly excellent pitching staff to little avail.

Rasmussen, the Rays’ No. 4 starter despite an 11-7 record and 2.84 ERA last season, cruised through six scoreless innings on a scant 66 pitches. The right-hander allowed two singles, didn’t issue a walk and struck out seven, pulled by manager Kevin Cash only because the organization is being careful with all of its starters early in the season.

"We chased way too much," manager Davey Martinez said. "But his stuff was good. We knew he threw the ball around the plate. But we've got to get him in the strike zone still. We were chasing way too many pitches."

With a chance to try their luck against the Tampa Bay bullpen instead, the Nationals sent six batters to the plate in the bottom of the seventh. Nobody was able to hit the ball in the air or out of the infield. And it still was unquestionably their best offensive inning of the game, producing one run via Lane Thomas’ RBI groundout, which scored Jeimer Candelario, who reached on an error and then advanced on Dominic Smith’s infield single and Keibert Ruiz’s groundout.

That’s the way things have gone through the season’s first four games, which have seen the Nats score a total of nine runs while amassing three doubles and two homers (by Ruiz and Candelario, each in the bottom of the ninth of games that were out of reach). In related news, their record is 1-3.

"We don't want to hit ground balls," Ruiz said. "We're going to do our best. We've just got to keep working, keep studying their pitching staff and try to do our best to get the ball in the air."

If they’re going to struggle this much to score runs – and there’s every reason to believe that will continue to be the case – the Nationals are going to have to play as clean a brand of baseball in every other department as reasonably possible. That hasn’t been the case so far this young season, and it certainly wasn’t the case tonight.

Trevor Williams was about to complete a 1-2-3 top of the first in quick fashion, getting No. 3 hitter Randy Arozarena to tap an 87.4-mph grounder to short. But CJ Abrams didn’t charge the ball with quite as much urgency as he could have, and so his subsequent throw to first was just a fraction of a second too late to get Arozarena, prolonging the inning.

That wouldn’t have been a big deal, except for the fact Luke Raley promptly launched Williams’ next pitch to right-center for a two-run homer and a 2-0 Tampa Bay lead. (Isaac Paredes also took Williams deep in the fourth on a hanging slider.)

"The Raley home run was down and away. He put a good swing on it; he's a really good hitter," Williams said. "Same with Paredes. It's me being lazy with 1-0 spin, but he's a good player and he has a great approach. He hit a mistake. Unfortunately at this level, you can't make many mistakes because big league hitters are real."

Thus was the pattern for the evening established. Williams didn’t pitch all that poorly, but he made just enough mistakes, and he and his teammates did just enough not to make plays in the field to have it all go haywire.

Williams induced back-to-back dribblers up the first base line out of Josh Lowe and Manuel Margot in the top of the second that even when combined produced a total exit velocity of 76.9 mph. Yet each batter wound up reaching safely, with Margot making it all the way to second after Williams tripped trying to corral the ball and then flipped it wildly toward Dominic Smith for an error. A subsequent sacrifice fly extended the Rays’ lead to 3-0.

"It is frustrating because when you get weak contact you're hoping it turns into an out, especially when I'm the one going after it," said Williams, who twisted his ankle after tripping but was able to remain in the game. "It's a play that I need to make, two times. Unfortunately, it was a bad bounce our way and it led to a couple runs."

Martinez, for what it’s worth, tried to argue Margot should’ve been called out for interference, a la Trea Turner in the World Series and again in 2021. He did manage to get Larry Vanover’s umpiring crew to huddle up and discuss it, but alas he still can’t get anyone to award him that call in his team’s favor for the first time.

"He was inside the baseline," Martinez said. "Larry told me he was inside the baseline. He felt like (Smith) didn't really have a play, but he did have a play. When we look at it, if he could catch the ball, he would've been out. One of these days, they'll get it right. It's just bad. The whole rule is bad. I thought about it, but ... (Vanover) admitted he was in the baseline. He just didn't know what to do. The second part of that rule sucks, to be honest. The fact is it's a judgment call. Just call it right. To me, that's not a judgment call. If you run inside the line, you're inside the line."

Add Paredes' solo homer to open the top of the fourth, and Williams’ fate was sealed. In his Nationals debut, the right-hander allowed four runs (three earned) on six hits over five innings, serving up two homers while throwing 59-of-93 pitches for strikes.

It was by no means an abysmal outing by Williams. But with this Nats lineup, anything shy of excellent starting pitching probably isn’t going to be enough.

"They're trying to get the ball in the air," Martinez said. "Sometimes you just have to look at who you're facing. For the most part, we were just swinging at bad pitches, so you're going to beat it into the ground."

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