The Nationals were looking to build off their dramatic win Sunday in Milwaukee and start their final homestand of the season on a strong note. In fact, manager Davey Martinez has mentioned multiple times over the last week the importance of his team finishing the regular season strong heading into the offseason.
Obviously, wins would be nice, but that also includes clean baseball all around.
While welcoming the White Sox, who are the last sub-.500 team they will face this season, to town for three matchups, the Nats did not get off to a good start to these last seven games to be played on South Capitol Street in the 2023 campaign.
The Nats dropped tonight’s opener to the White Sox 6-1 as Mike Clevinger pitched a complete game against the home squad in front of an announced crowd of 20,977 at Nationals Park, with some ugly scenes along the way.
The ugliest from both sides came when benches and bullpens cleared in the bottom of the ninth inning.
The Nats' only run on the night came on Dominic Smith’s two-out, two-strike solo home run in the ninth, causing things to get heated near the end of a game that was practically over. Smith watched his homer for a while before starting to run the bases and Clevinger said something as he rounded third and crossed home plate. Smith, who is usually cool-headed, got very upset really quickly, causing both teams to come out onto the field and separate the two.
“I'm not sure what caused it,” Smith said after the game. “I wasn't upset. I was just trying to figure out what he was saying. I touched third, he was saying something. I touched home, he was still saying something. I just asked him, 'What are you saying?' That's all.”
Did Smith ever get clarification of what Clevinger was saying?
“I think the camera (caught it). It was a couple of expletives," he said. "So whatever you all pick up on that, that's what it was.”
The situation dispersed with no further incident.
“He ran around the bases. Clevinger said some words. Next thing you know, I saw Dom turn around," Martinez said. "Our team ran out there. We stopped it. We didn't want any trouble. So got everybody in the dugout and finished the game.”
Martinez seemed to think the way Smith reacted to his 10th home run of the season caused some words to be said.
“Dom stood there and watched the home run," the skipper said. "He started saying some words to him. I don't know what he said. But it's just part of the game now. I've seen a lot worse. Guys stand there for a minute half the time and throw their bats 40 feet in the air. So it's part of the game.”
That ugly scene was the last of a couple by the Nationals tonight, the most egregious of which came in the sixth inning from rookie reliever Jose A. Ferrer.
Down 3-0 entering the top of the inning, starter Joan Adon allowed three straight hits to allow the White Sox to take a 4-0 lead and force Martinez to go to his bullpen. Ferrer entered and was able to induce a double play ball to Gavin Sheets. But in a full count, he allowed Elvis Andrus to hit an RBI single up the middle to make it 5-0.
During the next at-bat against Tim Anderson, Ferrer seemed to have been able to limit the damage by picking off Andrus at first base. Except the 23-year-old rookie started walking toward the dugout instead of covering first base as Smith chased Andrus toward second. When Smith gave up the ball to Luis García, Andrus was able to beat the second baseman back to first with Ferrer nowhere in sight.
“He's got to remember the play is never over. He's got to cover first base," Martinez said. "These guys are taught to follow you throw until the play is over. He kind of forgets a lot to even cover first base on a ground ball and stuff like that. The play is never over until we record the out. So that something he's got to learn.”
Ferrer, who had not been charged with a run since Aug. 23 against the Yankees, proceeded to give up two more hits, allowing Andrus to score and put the Nats down 6-0.
Before the chaos in the sixth, Adon put his team down in the fifth after seemingly a strong start. The 25-year-old struck out five over his first four innings, and although he was at 63 pitches afterwards, it seemed like he was going to finish at least with a quality start.
“I didn't feel anything differently," Adon said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez, of what changed after the first couple of times through the White Sox lineup. "I just feel like they were able to make the adjustments.”
With two outs in the fifth, he issued a single and a walk, then gave up a three-run home run to Luis Robert Jr. to put the Nats down 3-0. He still had a chance at a solid outing at 73 pitches after five innings, but the fiasco in the sixth ended his night and put the game out of reach.
“Just location. He just missed locations," Davey Martinez said. "On the breaking ball to Roberts, who has a lot of home runs, so in those situations, like we talked about high-leverage situations, he's gotta make pitches. He started off throwing the ball really well. Getting ahead and his pitch efficiency was really good, and then all of a sudden he got in trouble. That's some of the things that we talked about with him. When he gets into trouble, he's got to slow the game down a little bit.”
Adon finished the night charged with nine hits, five runs, two walks and five strikeouts. His ERA is now up to 6.28 through eight starts since rejoining the rotation in August.
“Bad. The runs," Adon said. "Four runs in five innings is not a good outing.”
The Nationals offense wasn’t any crisper at the plate or on the basepaths.
CJ Abrams led off the bottom of the first with a single up the middle, a good sign after going 1-for-24 over his last six games. But he was picked off at first by Clevinger, who seemed determined not to let the speedster run all night.
That removed a baserunner for Lane Thomas’ first at-bat, which also resulted in a single up the middle.
Abrams had his own chance to drive in runs in the third after Jake Alu and Jacob Young started the frame with back-to-back hits, but he grounded into a force out at second. Although he would record his 42nd stolen base of the season against Clevinger, Thomas struck out and Joey Meneses flew out with two runners in scoring position to end the threat.
“He just mixes his pitches up," Davey Martinez said. "We made it tough on ourselves though because we did a whole lot of chasing. The bottom line is we didn't swing at too many strikes. We were all over the map. We got to start getting the ball in the strike zone again. We got to accept our walks. But we were chasing a lot.”
The Nationals finished 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and left five runners on base as Clevinger tossed a complete game, the third of his career, with seven strikeouts, no walks and just six hits on 109 pitches.
“He made good pitches," Smith said. "He attacked the zone early. And when you attack the zone early, you kind of get us in a defensive mode and we weren't able to scratch out a couple of runs. We did have some guys on base and he pitched out of it. So you gotta give him credit there and like you said, he pitched really well tonight.”
Their only baserunners between the fourth and ninth inning were Abrams via a fielding error by Anderson in the sixth and a double in the eighth. Abrams also provided the Nats with their only other highlight of the night on a slick diving catch in the seventh to rob Andrew Vaughn of a hit and save a run against Cory Abbott.
“He's another one of our young hitters that when he gets the ball in the zone, he can hit," Davey Martinez said of Abrams. "He's having a really good year. I love when he gets on base because he makes things happen, but he's got to get the ball in the zone and swing at strikes. The biggest thing for him is accepting his walks. He's done a pretty good job this year of just understanding who he is. But when he gets the ball in the strike zone, he hits the ball hard.”
By nearly getting shut out for the eighth time this season and second time in their last five games, the Nationals fell to 31-44 at home this season. Another point of emphasis to focus on in 2024.