Robles' latest blunder looms large in loss to Cubs (updated)

CHICAGO – The point has been made, repeatedly, since the day Victor Robles first arrived in the big leagues nearly five years ago. Multiple Nationals managers and countless other coaches have pleaded with the talented-but-reckless outfielder not to attempt to make a throw that has little chance of success.

Five years later, Robles still does it. And on a cloudless August afternoon at Wrigley Field, he played a significant role in costing his team a ballgame.

There were other reasons the Nationals dropped their series finale to the Cubs, 4-2, given that all four runs scored in the bottom of the seventh off Josiah Gray, Steve Cishek and Víctor Arano. But Robles’ inexplicable throw from center field to the backstop arguably had more impact than anything else.

"As we all know, he can be electric out there," manager Davey Martinez said of the 25-year-old. "But once again, it's those little things. Understanding the game, and being in a position where in a situation like that, he knows what he needs to do before it happens. That's the biggest thing: Think before the ball's hit to you, and understand what you need to do if the ball's hit to you."

The situation: With the Nats leading by a run and one out in the inning, runners on first and second, Nick Madrigal singled up the middle. The lead runner, Patrick Wisdom, scored easily from second, but that didn’t stop Robles from unleashing a throw all the way to the bricks behind the plate. Which, in turn, allowed trailing runner P.J. Higgins to advance to third and Madrigal to advance to second.

And wouldn’t you know what happened next: Rafael Ortega hit a fly ball to right-center (with Robles and Lane Thomas nearly colliding). Had the runners been on first and second, nobody would’ve scored. But because they were instead on second and third as a result of Robles’ error, the go-ahead run came across, the trailing runner moving up to third.

And when Ian Happ later singled off Carl Edwards Jr., that final tack-on run scored to leave the Nationals in a two-run hole late.

"You've just got to understand the portion of the game, and that's something that he needs to start learning," Martinez said. "You can't just come up there and fire the ball and hope it's going to go. You've got to have an idea. You've got to have a plan before the ball comes to you. We're going to grill him again about it. That, to me, is a big play right there. We keep the runners at first and second, other things can happen. But when you airmail a ball like that, two runners advance to the next base. That was tough."

Robles departed the clubhouse without speaking to reporters. 

All of this spoiled what had been shaping up to be a good ballgame for the visitors, who got a strong start from Gray, another homer from 30-year-old rookie sensation Joey Meneses and even a spectacular catch from Robles earlier in the afternoon.

It had been a rough month for Gray, who followed up a splendid June (1.13 ERA in four starts) with a ragged July and opening week of August (7.63 ERA in six starts). The problem, as had been painfully clear, was an inability to keep the ball in the park: He served up a whopping 13 homers over his previous 30 2/3 innings and entered today’s game with a major-league-leading 28 surrendered on the season.

The challenge, then, was to get the ball down in the zone with more frequency this afternoon, and that’s exactly what Gray did. The Cubs did still produce some well-struck fly balls, but there were more balls hit on the ground than usual against Gray, who also was helped by his defense.

"I think today definitely was a change in mindset, mixing in a couple different things and trying to locate at the bottom of the zone while also accessing the top," he said. "The curveball wasn't working as well today as I wanted to, but I was able to throw my fastball down and my slider off of that. I think there's a lot of room for success when I'm doing that. I'm definitely going to take that into my next outing and continue to pound the bottom of the zone, use the top of the zone as well."

The play of the day – maybe the play of the year – came from Robles, who ranged deep into left-center field to make a full-on diving catch of Higgins’ fifth-inning line drive. This only two innings after Robles briefly lost a routine fly ball in the sun, locating it just in time to make an awkward catch.

Gray was effective getting quicker outs than usual, as well, a key development club officials have been waiting for, believing he would give himself a better chance of lasting deeper into games than he had been. When he walked off the mound at the end of the sixth having thrown only 85 pitches, he became the Nationals first starter to complete six innings since Patrick Corbin way back on July 9 against the Braves.

"Quality start. Able to just give the team a chance," Gray said. "The numbers are the numbers, the stats are the stats. But I gave the team a chance to win, and honestly that's all I'm going to look at from today."

Martinez let his young right-hander return to the mound for the seventh, and Nico Hoerner made him pay for that decision with a leadoff homer to left. And when former Nationals catcher Yan Gomes delivered a one-out single, Martinez pulled his starter at 96 pitches and turned to his bullpen in a vain attempt to protect a 2-1 lead.

The Nats held that lead thanks to a two-out bloop RBI double by César Hernández in the top of the third, a play on which Cubs center fielder Ortega let the ball get by him and thus let Tres Barrera score all the way from first.

And they extended their lead thanks to yet another big blast from the unlikeliest slugger they’ve had in some time. When Meneses took Justin Steele deep to left-center in the top of the sixth, he became the first player in Nationals history to hit four home runs in his first seven big league games, not to mention the first National to ever hit three homers in one series at Wrigley Field.

"It's very special," Meneses said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "It's something I'll always keep with me and remember. I wasn't trying to do it. I was just trying to do the best I could and enjoy the moment. I wasn't expecting it."

Meneses’ go-ahead homer Tuesday night proved to be the difference in a victory for his team. This one, alas, became a footnote due to later events.

After the game, the Nationals optioned reliever Mason Thompson to Triple-A Rochester, clearing a spot for newly acquired left-hander Jake McGee to join the bullpen Friday.

* Shortstop Luis García was a late scratch from the lineup with a sore right knee. Martinez said García received treatment during the game and felt better, and hopes he'll be ready to return Friday against the Padres.

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