Slight pitching improvement, but still no win for Nats (updated)

CHICAGO – At this point, the Nationals will gladly take the bare minimum that could be considered a decent performance from a member of their rotation: five innings and a chance at a win. They hadn’t come close to getting such an outing over the last five days, and they’ve barely received any that meet that low standard over the last month.

So when Aníbal Sánchez managed tonight to not only complete five innings allowing only three runs, but then take the mound for the sixth as well, it felt like something of a step in the right direction for the Nats.

Not a step in a winning direction, mind you. But at least a step forward instead of backward.

It made no difference in the end, because Sánchez was charged with another run in the sixth, the bullpen gave up two more in the seventh and the lineup managed nothing but Luke Voit’s solo homer in the sixth and Joey Meneses’ two-run homer in the eighth during a 6-3 loss to the Cubs that wasn’t as close as the final score suggests.

Thus did the Nationals drop their sixth straight, falling to a major-league-worst 36-75. With the season more than two-thirds complete, they’re now on pace to lose 110 games.

"It's frustrating, especially since these five games we've been down early a lot," said Voit, who has yet to be a part of a win since joining the team as the only non-prospect to come from San Diego in the Juan Soto-Josh Bell blockbuster trade. "We need to find ways to try to scrap out a couple runs and give our pitchers some support. Obviously it's tough being down 6-0, 7-0 constantly. But they've done a good job of battling back. It's just a matter of having good at-bats, taking your walks and not having quick innings."

Many of these recent losses have come at the hands of National League East rivals, who have obliterated the Nats to the tune of 42 wins in 51 games this year. The next week-plus, though, offers at least the potential for a break, with six games against a Cubs team that entered this series with the NL’s second-worst record.

The disparity between the two bottom-dwellers looked plenty vast tonight, though, with Chicago riding an actual quality start (six innings of one-run ball by Keegan Thompson) and home runs by Nelson Velázquez and Christopher Morel while the Nationals slogged their way through another lifeless performance.

The lowest of the low points came in the bottom of the seventh when the Cubs attempted a double-steal, Hunter Harvey stepped off the mound and threw the ball to third in plenty of time, but Maikel Franco wasn’t close enough to the base to make the tag. That runner would score moments later to extend the lead.

"Franco needs to get to the base," manager Davey Martinez said. "Harvey did the right thing, stepped off and threw a strike. Franco didn't get to the base. ... That's a huge difference. That's two outs right there, and the next guy hits a fly ball."

On an unseasonably cool, damp August evening at Wrigley Field, the wind was blowing in from left field. That figured to play right into Sánchez’s hands. Victimized by the home run throughout his first four starts off the injured list, the veteran perhaps had a little more leeway tonight to get away with mistakes over the plate.

And for two innings, that’s exactly what happened. Sánchez retired the first six batters he faced, four via fly ball. And then came the bottom of the third, at which point the strategy no longer worked in his favor.

Velázquez lofted a high fly ball to left, cutting it just enough through the wind to reach the front row of the bleachers for a 1-0 lead. Following a four-pitch walk of Nick Madrigal, Morel turned on a 3-2 cutter and sent it soaring into those same bleachers for a 3-0 lead.

Those were the seventh and eighth home runs Sánchez had surrendered in 23 major league innings to date this season, a sky-high rate of 3.1 per nine innings. For comparison’s sake, Josiah Gray (who has allowed an MLB-high 28 homers) is only giving up 2.4 per nine innings.

"A lot of has to do with getting behind hitters, and having to throw strikes," Martinez said. "We've got to start working ahead of hitters. We've been doing that really well. And put guys ahead in counts. When Aníbal does that, he's really good. He can mix things up and get guys off-balance. When he's behind, he's got to get more in the strike zone."

To his credit, Sánchez settled down after that. And when he completed the fifth inning in short order, he gave himself a chance to become the Nationals’ first starter to record an out in the sixth since July 29, when Sánchez himself went 5 2/3 innings against the Cardinals. Alas, back-to-back singles brought an abrupt end to his night, and after Steve Cishek allowed one of the inherited runners to score, Sánchez wound up charged with four earned runs in five-plus innings (though that did actually lower his ERA from 7.65 to 7.56).

"Right now, I feel like I'm getting better in every outing," Sánchez said. "Today, I felt that I (did) more than what happened by the result. But I felt good at the end. I finished strong. A couple hits at the end changed everything." 

A sign of some modest improvement? Yes. Enough to actually put the Nats in position to win a game? No.

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