PHILADELPHIA – This is the path the Nationals have chosen. There’s no going back.
Juan Soto and Josh Bell are Padres, taking their offensive prowess with them to the West Coast. What’s left is a more depleted lineup that often struggled even with the sluggers on their side.
Tuesday night’s improbable win against the Mets was a nice story. A small victory in an otherwise difficult day for the franchise.
But then reality set back in on Wednesday in the form of a 9-5 loss to the Mets that was only close because of the Nats’ five-run rally in the ninth.
And here we are again, this time at Citizens Bank Park in the opener of a four-game series against the Phillies. With Luke Voit and MacKenzie Gore (two of the six players the Nationals got back in the trade) joining the team in the clubhouse, another page in this new era of Washington baseball flipped. And the result was pretty much the same.
Another new-look Nationals lineup lost to the Phillies 5-4 in a rain-shortened game that was called after 4 ½ innings and a 2-hour, 6-minute rain delay.
“Yeah I was bummed," manager Davey Martinez said of the shortened loss. "I mean, we had some good positive energy going there and we were swinging the bats well. But you can't do nothing about Mother Nature. If it's gonna rain, it's gonna rain. We tried to wait as long as we could. It's 11 p.m. now, so they banged the game.”
Nats hitters were able to make contact off Noah Syndergaard, who was making his Phillies debut after being traded from the Angels on Tuesday. By the time the rain came in, they had collected 11 hits and four runs off the former Mets starter.
The problem: They didn’t hit for power and the Phillies did. Of the 11 hits, only one went for extra bases (Victor Robles’ leadoff double to start the game). Phillies hitters had only seven hits but scored five runs off Nationals starter Paolo Espino. That's because two of those hits were homers to collectively score four runs (Rhys Hoskins’ solo shot in the first and Alec Bohm’s three-run shot in the third).
"We were putting the ball in play," Martinez said. "We were staying in the middle field. We hit the ball hard, and that's awesome. We keep doing that, like I said with Voit in the lineup and we get (Nelson Cruz) back and Lane (Thomas) has been swinging about better now. So we'll score some runs.”
When you lose the likes of Soto and Bell, the lack of power is to be expected. But it becomes more noticeable (and detrimental) when you’re making contact off the opposing pitcher and only collecting singles.
Voit will be counted on to provide some of that power as he settles into his new team, with the plan to regularly be in the lineup as the first baseman or designated hitter. And he got his Nationals career off to a nice start, hitting an RBI single to score Robles in the top of the first to give the Nats a quick 1-0 lead. He struck out on four pitches and a 75 mph curveball outside of the zone in his second at-bat. But then came back to single in his third at-bat, advanced to third on two subsequent singles and finally scored on Syndergaard’s wild pitch in the fifth.
“It's obviously nice to get a hit in your first at-bat and drive in a run to kind of spark the guys," Voit said. "We had 11 hits tonight, so it was a good offensive night. It's a little frustrating that, obviously, that play at the plate could've changed the outcome. ... But yeah, it was fun tonight. Obviously it sucks we lost, but all the guys seem like they're having a bunch of fun and I just want to be a part of it."
“I had fun tonight, the coaches were great to me and everyone was pretty cool. So I enjoyed it,” he said.
Despite the lack of power, the Nationals did put themselves in position to tie the game before the rain. But the couldn't push the run across in the aforementioned play at the plate.
After Voit scored on the wild pitch, the Nats still had two runners in scoring position and only one out in the fifth. Josh Palacios sent a ball to right field that wasn't too deep for Nick Castellanos. But third base coach Gary DiSarcina had Yadiel Hernandez tag up anyways only to be easily thrown out at home, leaving the score 5-4.
“He made a good throw," Martinez said. "We took a shot right there, but the throw was right on the money. That's what happens in those situations. We knew we only had a few minutes before the rain was coming. We took a shot and like I said, if he makes a bad throw, we tie the game. But he made a really good throw.”
Meanwhile, Espino only managed to complete four innings thanks to the rain (although he was already at 71 pitches, so his outing might have been coming to a close anyways). His homer to Hoskins came on an 0-1 slider that was 76 mph in the right-handed hitter’s sweet spot. The longball to Bohm was a 76 mph curveball below the zone that was golfed into the left field seats. It was also set up by three straight singles to open the inning.
“Once again, one inning where everything happened," Espino said. "I mean, if you can take that inning away, everything will look a lot different. But at the end of the day, the score is the score and that one inning made everything for me really bad.”
Espino fell to 0-4 with a 4.20 ERA on the season, but he now has a 5.52 ERA over his 10 starts.
“I'm definitely trying to attack. I'm trying to attack," he said. "Maybe in the back of my head, like I don't want to make a mistake. Maybe. I'm trying to attack. I'm trying to hit the zone right away because I know if I fall behind, it's not going to be great for me because I have to come back in there.”
The Nationals will definitely have question marks in their rotation for the remainder of the season. And while the bullpen may be this team’s biggest strength at this point, even the relievers are prone to bad outings.
But it won’t matter who’s on the hill if the offense can’t provide some pop. They can’t afford to record 11 hits off a starter and still find themselves behind.
Soto and Bell took a lot of that power to Slam Diego. But it can’t be that they took all of it.