The Nationals have legitimately been getting quality work from a deep stable of relievers for months now, helping keep far more games close than was the case during the season’s first half. And that includes several relievers capable of going multiple innings and posting multiple zeros.
If only they didn’t have to keep asking a couple of those relievers to start games and extend themselves beyond the point where they remain effective.
A lack of reliable (or healthy) starters has left the Nats in this position, needing to keep giving starts to the likes of Paolo Espino and Cory Abbott, who might be good for two or three innings but haven’t been able to sustain that success beyond that point.
It happened again tonight to Espino during an 8-2 loss to the Braves. After retiring the first 10 batters he faced, the right-hander retired only six of the last 11 he faced before, in the process failing to earn his long-coveted first win of the season.
Espino and those who followed him out of the bullpen weren’t helped a ton by their infield defense, which played its sloppiest game in a while.
"It's more about how we played today," said manager Davey Martinez, citing his team's sloppy defensive effort, most notably around the infield. "I mean, we gave them six extra outs. We played two extra innings on defense."
Thus did the Braves defeat the Nats for the 14th time in 18 head-to-head matchups this season, having out-homered them 41-15 along the way. They’ll meet here, mercifully, one final time Wednesday evening.
The Nationals have had a penchant for scoring early runs over the last week, and they were back at it tonight, jumping out to a 2-0 lead after two innings thanks to Luke Voit’s RBI double in the first and Victor Robles’ sixth homer of the season in the second.
But as has also been the case at times of late, there were opportunities to add to that early lead, and they were squandered. The Nats stranded runners in scoring position in both the first and third innings tonight, with Alex Call (batting fifth) making the third out in each case.
"All of a sudden, we start chasing," Martinez said. "We've got to understand who we are and what we do. We've got to get the ball in the zone. We've got to be aggressive in the zone. When we do that, we hit the ball really well. Today, we started off really good, and all of a sudden we got to chasing."
That didn’t look like it would be a huge problem the way Espino was pitching up to that point. The right-hander retired the side in the first, then again in the second, then again in the third. All told, he struck out five of the first nine batters he faced, only one shy of his season high for any start in its entirety.
But if you’ve watched the journeyman enough this year, you’ve seen how these outings tend to progress. Espino may be highly effective for a few innings, but he tends to hit a wall quickly and pay the price for it.
The evidence: Including tonight, he has held opponents to a .226 batting average and .665 OPS the first time through the lineup. Those numbers skyrocket to .370 and 1.014 when he faces hitters the second time through the order.
"We're trying to get them out of there after about 75 pitches, no matter what," Martinez said, referencing both Espino and Abbott. "They've endured a lot, both in the bullpen and starting for us."
The trend held true again tonight. As soon as the fourth inning arrived, Espino fell apart, though he was awfully close to getting out of that inning unscathed. Had he been able to corral Matt Olson’s little nubber to his left, he would’ve posted another zero. Instead, it turned into a two-out infield single and set the stage for Michael Harris II’s two-run triple to right moments later.
"I think it was OK until that one play," Espino said. "That one play, that would've been the third out, and I probably would've been out of there. And then the lineup would've been different coming into the fifth inning. It's baseball. It happens."
The Braves then turned, as they so often do, to the longball to knock Espino from the game. They got a pair of solo homers in the fifth, yet another one from Orlando Arcia (the fifth straight game he’s done it at Nationals Park) along with a follow-up blast from Ronald Acuña Jr.
Thus did Espino’s night end. Perfect for three innings, he wound up departing with four runs and five hits charged to him over five frames.
"We know that's Paolo's game: He's going to have to use all his pitches from the get-go," catcher Tres Barrera said. "That's how he has success, and last time at their place he did the same thing. Sometimes you miss, and sometimes they take advantage of opportunities. They did that tonight."
The Braves weren't finished after Espino was. They scored two more runs with two outs in the sixth off Jordan Weems, aided by back-to-back infield singles that could’ve been outs with more aggressive throws by Ildemaro Vargas and César Hernández. Then they got yet another home run from Acuña in the seventh off Mason Thompson, extending their lead to 7-2 and all but wrapping up yet another win on South Capitol Street for the defending champs, who are now tied with the Mets for the National League East lead with seven games to go.
"They can beat you in many ways," Martinez said. "They can hit for power. They've got guys that put the ball in play. And they've got good speed now. They're going to beat you as many ways as possible. ... That's the reason why they're probably headed to the playoffs again, right?"