PHOENIX – What does it take for the Nationals to win a baseball game right now? It takes everything going right.
It takes a quality performance from the starting pitcher. It takes a sustained offensive attack from the early innings through the late ones. And it takes shutdown work from the bullpen.
Remove any one part of that formula, and victory becomes awfully difficult. Remove two, and it is almost impossible. Remove all three, and … well, you get the Nationals on most nights in July 2022.
The Nats did none of those things well tonight in a 7-2 loss to the Diamondbacks. But in fairness, they haven’t done most of those things well at any point this month. They’ve now lost 17 of their last 19 games to fall to an abysmal 31-65 on the season.
Now consider this: The worst month in club history was July 2008, when the Nationals went 5-19 (a .208 winning percentage) during what wound up a 102-loss season. This team needs to win four of its next seven games (against the D-backs, Dodgers and Cardinals, mind you) to avoid establishing a new low point.
They hoped to increase their odds with a win tonight, but that would’ve required a far better performance than they got, especially from a lineup that continues to be overwhelmed by opposing pitching staffs, whether they send big names or lesser-knowns to the mound.
"Especially after the (All-Star break), guys are still trying to find themselves again and get in that groove," manager Davey Martinez said. "Hopefully, tomorrow we'll come out and swing the bats the way we're capable of swinging. But it's been a struggle. Consistency is the key. Some days we look like we're going to hit the ball really well. Other days we come out like tonight ... we didn't hit the ball at all. We struck out a bunch of times."
Tonight it was Madison Bumgarner, the long-ago ace of the Giants now just churning out innings for the Diamondbacks, dominating like it was 2012 all over again. The Nationals managed all of one run on three hits (all singles) through seven innings against the 32-year-old left-hander, who finally served up a solo homer to Victor Robles in the eighth (one that left Bumgarner calling Robles "a clown" for his excited reaction). They did not draw a walk. They took all of three at-bats with a runner in scoring position, going 0-for-3.
Much of this ragged stretch has seen Juan Soto and Josh Bell produce but nobody around them deliver. Tonight, not even those two big bats could come through. Soto went 0-for-3 against Bumgarner, making solid contact in his first at-bat but then striking out in his next two.
"He's kind of a little sneaky with the move and everything," the slugger said of the Arizona lefty. "For me, I think he was missing a lot of spots, and he was going his way. Because I was looking for a spot, and he just missed it right where I was looking for it. I just missed the ball."
And when he struck out again in his fourth and final plate appearance, Soto saw his career-high streak of games reaching base end at 27.
How much did he pay attention to it?
"A lot, until today," he said with a laugh. "It means a lot. I've been trying my best, working really hard to keep going every day. I just keep battling. It doesn't matter the results. I just come to grind every day."
With that kind of showing from the lineup, the onus was on Aníbal Sánchez to be near-perfect, which admittedly is an unfair ask of the 38-year-old at this stage of his career.
Sánchez was admittedly jittery in his first major league start in two years, and it showed during a laborious first inning during an outing in which he wound up allowing four runs over five innings (all of them scoring via a pair of two-run homers).
Those jitters were gone this time, but Sánchez still did labor through a 33-pitch bottom of the first that included a couple of softly struck singles, a walk and a run-scoring sacrifice fly. A leadoff homer by Carson Kelly in the bottom of the second extended the lead, then a walk, double and RBI groundout in the fourth gave the Diamondbacks their third run off Sánchez.
That’s all the veteran right-hander would allow. He completed five innings on 93 pitches, striking out four while walking two.
"Be able to go deeper in the game, that's what I want," Sánchez said. "I want to get more control on my pitches. I think everything is really close. I think I'm close to getting to where I want to be. I think for my next outing, I want to do that."
There was nothing spectacular about Sánchez's outing, but he did give his team a chance.The Nationals, though, don’t do much with chances these days. They certainly don’t make the most of them.
And it doesn’t help matters at all when a reliever implodes and creates an insurmountable deficit. That’s what Andres Machado did during a sixth inning that featured four runs, four hits, a walk, a wild pitch, two stolen bases and only two recorded outs before Martinez was forced to signal for Erasmo Ramirez to bail him out.
"It was tough," the manager said. "Machado came in and got two quick outs, and then all of a sudden he looked like he couldn't get the ball down. Everything was up, and they put the ball in play."