The Nationals took the field tonight for the 92nd time this season. An enthusiastic, Friday night crowd of 30,409 settled in for what everyone hoped would be an entertaining, hopefully competitive, maybe even victorious ballgame from the local club.
And then the top of the first – featuring another throwing error by Luis García, another poorly played grounder by Maikel Franco and another towering home run served up by Patrick Corbin – came and went, and anybody who has been paying any attention to this team knew none of those hopes would become reality.
An 8-4 thrashing at the hands of the Braves once again revealed to the world who exactly these Nationals are. They are a team that has lost eight straight games. They are a team that has lost eight straight games to Atlanta. They are a team that has lost 24 of its last 26 games to division opponents. And they are a team that has lost 14 of its last 15 games overall.
That last cover-your-eyes fact may be the toughest to accept of all, because this is the first team in Nationals history to lose 14 of 15 within a single season. The 59-win 2008 and 2009 clubs did it over a stretch that included the end of the earlier season and the start of the subsequent season. But neither did it within its own season.
"They've got to understand that this organization was a winner for a long time," manager Davey Martinez said. "This happens to the best of the best. But we've got to battle back. We've got to keep playing. Forget about what happened today, come back tomorrow and go 1-0. That's the mentality. "
The 2022 Nationals, of course, don’t just lose games. They lose games in such predictable fashion, the outcomes of these games often are obvious before the sun goes down behind the third base stands.
Take tonight’s contest, for example. When the Braves jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first, was there any doubt how the rest of the evening would proceed?
No, because this is how just about every ballgame goes these days. The Nationals have given up runs in the first inning in six of their last seven games, multiple runs in four of those games. They haven’t scored themselves in any of them.
Thus do they find themselves playing from behind every single night. And that’s not a position this team is equipped to deal with, not with the lineup they put out there every day.
"None of these guys likes that we're losing," Martinez said. "That's why you see them continue to play the way they're playing at the end of games, trying to come back. But we've got to come out and put the pressure on the other team, and try to score first and go from there. We've got to do that. When we start doing that, things will turn around for us."
Juan Soto may be on a long-awaited tear at the plate (24 straight games reaching base, though his hitting streak ended tonight at 16 games), and Josh Bell may still be producing at a high level (3-for-4, two doubles, one walk), but the rest of the group isn’t coming close to pulling its weight, certainly not in the situations that matter.
To wit: Bell led off both the fourth and the sixth innings with doubles, with Soto then drawing a walk to leave two on with nobody out. And the only run their teammates managed to “drive” in came when César Hernández was hit by an errant pitch from Collin McHugh with the bases loaded.
The Nats went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position. During a three-inning span in this game. That they made things interesting late with a three-run rally, inexplicably bringing the tying run to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, only added another predictable element to this affair.
"It is difficult coming back every night," said Keibert Ruiz, who struck out with the bases loaded to end the game, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "But we've been, it seems like, one base hit away from the game swinging our way and getting the victory. It just seems like every night it's that one at-bat, or one big base hit that we need. We've got to stay focused and stay with our game plan in those particular moments, and hopefully they start coming our way."
Among the culprits has been Nelson Cruz, mired in a 11-for-56 slump with only one extra-base hit and removed from tonight’s game in the sixth inning with a tight left quadriceps muscle, according to Martinez.
Another consistent theme: Corbin digging his team into an early hole, especially against the Braves. The left-hander did it once again tonight, serving up a two-run homer to cleanup hitter Austin Riley along with an unearned run due to García’s ninth error in 41 games to give the Braves a 3-0 lead in the first.
"Especially against these guys, I would've liked not to have to face Riley in the first," Corbin said. "But it's part of the game. It happens. I just think right now as a team we're not pitching well. We're not doing anything well. It's frustrating. Guys here are working hard. It's tough to keep playing like this. But we've got to just keep battling and try to turn it around."
Corbin would surrender another run in the second, another in the fourth and then another in the fifth on Orlando Arcia’s third homer in 28 at-bats against the Nationals over the last month. The left-hander would depart at the end of the inning having been charged with five earned runs on nine hits, striking out eight but watching his ERA rise to 5.87.
And with that, Corbin lost yet again to the Braves. He has now made nine starts against them since September 2019, and he has gone 0-9 with a 7.28 ERA.
Just another predictable outcome for a team that is nothing if not predictable these days.
"Obviously, they know us really well," Corbin said. "They're in the division. We play them a lot. Back-to-back starts for me. They're a good team, and sometimes it happens. You try to make your pitches, and it just doesn't work out your way."