PHILADELPHIA – For the past three weeks, the Nationals had been playing a much more watchable brand of baseball, made possible in large part by a vast improvement in the field.
Having spent the vast majority of the season trotting out the majors’ worst defense, the Nats have seen that problem area morph into a real strength since the arrival of 21-year-old shortstop CJ Abrams, which allowed Luis García to move to his more natural position at second base, while journeyman Ildemaro Vargas became a rock-solid addition at third base.
Then came tonight’s 8-5 loss at Citizens Bank Park, in which the Nationals reverted back to all their worst habits from this now 91-loss season, from poor starting pitching to a lack of sustained offense to unsightly defense.
The defensive miscues stood out more than anything else, because this team had looked so impressive in the field during their recent upswing. Officially, the Nats were charged with two errors (one by Vargas, one by César Hernández) but that doesn’t come close to telling the full story.
"Our infield didn't throw the ball well today," manager Davey Martinez said. "But they've been playing really well, so I'm just going to chalk it up to one of those nights, and come back tomorrow."
Hernández, who started in place of García at second base, alone was responsible for a string of mistakes, most notably during a wretched fourth-inning sequence that cost his team and starter Erick Fedde dearly.
On three successive balls in play, Hernández had an opportunity to throw out a runner. Had he thrown just one of them out, the inning would’ve ended with zero runs crossing the plate. Instead, two runs wound up scoring, and Fedde was knocked from the game.
There was a deep drive to right-center caught by Lane Thomas, who fired the ball back to Hernández, who probably could’ve thrown a runner out either at first or third base but instead threw to second. There was a potential 6-4-3 double play that could’ve ended the inning if not for Hernández’s wide throw to first. And then there was relay to the plate on Brandon Marsh’s double off the right field wall, which had a chance to nail Edmundo Sosa if it was on target.
"I've said this before: The only people that don't make errors are those watching the games from the stands," Hernández said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "None of us are trying to make errors out there. We're all trying to make the plays. Tonight, we just were unable to, and that's part of the game."
Why did García get the night off?
"I just wanted to give him a break," Davey Martinez said. "We've got a day game tomorrow. I'm going to periodically give these guys a day, so today was his day. Day game tomorrow. But he's doing fine."
Those runs were charged to Fedde, who would’ve benefited from better defense but didn’t exactly help his own cause much with another shaky start. The right-hander lasted only 3 2/3 innings, allowed four runs on five hits and killed himself with four walks that helped ratchet up his pitch count to 79.
Fedde also gave up yet another home run to his old Las Vegas High School (and Nationals) teammate Bryce Harper. Harper’s 403-foot, opposite-field blast was the sixth of his career off Fedde, against whom he’s now a staggering 10-for-19 with an insane 2.117 OPS.
That this latest homer came on a 3-1 changeup over the plate despite first base being open with two outs in the third made it all the more mindboggling.
"That was in a spot where probably throwing him a pitch in the zone wasn't in my best interest," Fedde said. "That probably would've been the biggest thing I would change."
His manager concurred, and stressed Fedde was instructed prior to the game not to give Harper anything to hit in just such a situation.
"We mentioned it before. It's happened to us before: When you pitch around him, you don't throw changeups," Martinez said. "You just throw your fastball away, up (and) away. Just throw a non-competitive pitch. He threw a changeup, and Harp - as good a hitter as he is - got good wood on it."
So, why not just intentionally walk Harper, especially once the count was 3-1, instead of entrusting Fedde to pitch carefully enough?
"I told myself: These guys have got to understand the game," Martinez said. "They've got to be smart. I'm not going to walk him six times, holding my fingers up. We talked about it when we got in here. It's just one of those mistakes."
Fedde wasn’t alone serving up long balls to the Phillies’ potent lineup tonight. Andres Machado allowed a two-run blast to Nick Maton in the fifth. Jordan Weems entered for the sixth and surrendered a leadoff shot to Marsh on his very first pitch. And what would a night at the ballpark be without a Schwarbomb, this one a 457-foot moonshot into the visitors’ bullpen in right-center by Kyle Schwarber off Cory Abbott in the eighth.
That leaves the Phillies with a whopping 32 homers in 14 games against the Nationals this season. The Nats have hit only nine themselves. Is it any surprise they’re now 2-12 against their NL East rivals, with one more game to be played here Sunday and then a four-game series still on tap in D.C. later this month?
"You fall behind in the count, especially in this ballpark, bad things can happen," Martinez said. "And you saw that tonight."
The Nationals haven’t been a home-run-hitting team all year. They did get another one tonight from Joey Meneses, the 30-year-old’s eighth in 34 games since making his major league debut last month, but otherwise tried to rally from a five-run deficit with singles and doubles.
They didn’t do with walks, either, having failed to draw even one free pass through the first 15 innings of this series until Hernández led off the top of the seventh tonight with one. That put him in position to score moments later on Vargas’ double into the left field corner. And when Thomas added a two-out RBI single to left later in the inning, the Nationals had trimmed the deficit to three runs.
It remained there in the top of the ninth, though the Nats wound up loading the bases with two outs before Nelson Cruz struck out on three pitches to ensure his team would lose this series after either winning or splitting their last three.
"We're having good at-bats throughout the whole game," Martinez said. "I've said it before: This group doesn't quit. They're going to play for 27 outs, and you saw that tonight."