With several regulars sitting, Nationals shut out again (updated)

CHICAGO – With the season now more than one-quarter complete, we pretty much know how most Nationals ballgames are going to go.

Their starting pitcher isn’t going to dazzle but is going to give them a chance, even if for only five or six innings tops. Their bullpen is going to be effective, especially when handed a lead. And their lineup is going to have chances to score runs, thanks in large part to nearly every player’s ability to steal bases. It just boils down to whether that group can produce the one or two clutch hits that actually score said runs.

When the formula works, it’s fun to watch. When it doesn’t work, it can be maddening. And today’s series finale against the White Sox, just like the nightcap of Tuesday’s doubleheader, most definitely fell into the maddening category.

Despite countless opportunities to break through at the plate, the Nationals could not convert and wound up suffering a 2-0 loss. Combined with Tuesday night’s 4-0 loss to old pal Erick Fedde, they dropped their second straight series to begin this three-city trip and will now need to find a way to take two of three in Philadelphia over the weekend to break out of that slump.

With a lineup lacking several starters who were given a rare day off, the Nats went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, slightly worse than the 0-for-8 they went Tuesday night.

"We are who we are," manager Davey Martinez said, perhaps acknowledging his roster's offensive deficiencies. "We've got guys out there, and we just have to keep working with them. I've seen signs where they were going to come out of it, and then we start hitting. And then the last two games, it just didn't happen."

If ever Martinez was going to sit a bunch of regulars at the same time, the stars were properly aligned today. The Nationals had just played a doubleheader Tuesday, making this their third game in 24 hours. They were facing a tough left-hander in Garrett Crochet. They’re off tomorrow, giving tired players some extra rest before they open a weekend series in Philadelphia.

So with CJ Abrams, Luis García Jr., Jesse Winker and Eddie Rosario watching from the bench, the Nats took the field today with Ildemaro Vargas in left field (batting third for the first time in his professional life), Trey Lipscomb at second base and Nasim Nuñez at shortstop (only his second career start in the field).

"Any way I can to help the team out, my mentality's the same," Vargas said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Go out there focused, trying to get good at-bats and make good contact. And hopefully help the team any way possible."

The result of the unconventional look: They struggled just as much to score runs as they did during Tuesday night’s shutout loss.

The Nationals had baserunners; that wasn’t the problem. They put a man in scoring position in the first, second, third, fourth, sixth and ninth innings. They could not bring a single one of them home.

"I think we all get frustrated," said Keibert Ruiz, who struck out with the bases loaded in the third. "Obviously as a player, you want to see results. You want to win. But this game is tough. We've got to keep the head up and come in the next day, make the adjustment we need to make and keep playing hard."

There were, to be sure, a number of long, quality at-bats, which helped drive up Crochet’s pitch count. The lefty was already up to 66 pitches at the end of the third. And with his total at 89 even after a quick top of the fifth, White Sox manager Pedro Grifol decided not to push his starter any further and turned to his bullpen in a 1-0 game.

Not that the move did anything to energize to wake up the Nats’ bats. They put another runner in scoring position in the sixth against reliever Jared Shuster, but Ruiz, Riley Adams and Lipscomb each made quick outs to end that inning and keep the shutout intact.

Even when Rosario, Winker and García all came off the bench to pinch-hit late, the result was the same: Zero runs scored. The game ended with Abrams, pinch-hitting for Nuñez, flying out to left with two on and two out in the ninth.

"I think the whole thing now is, it becomes more pressure," Martinez said. "If one guy can't do it, the next guy comes up, and there's that much more pressure. We've just got to keep battling."

Patrick Corbin was the primary victim of the lack of run support. The left-hander once again did his job and gave his team a chance. And he once again had little to show for it at day’s end.

"Just tried to keep us in the game there," said Corbin, who has won only one of his last five starts despite a 3.46 ERA in that time. "We weren't able to score today. Just a tough game. They pitched well today."

Far more efficient than Crochet in the early going, Corbin cruised through two scoreless innings on 24 pitches. He got into trouble in the third, though, issuing a leadoff walk, which set the stage for Tommy Pham’s RBI double down the left field line.

That was the lone run Corbin surrendered while in the game, and he lasted until there were two outs in the sixth, at which point Andrew Benintendi doubled to left. Martinez walked to the mound and signaled to his bullpen, with Derek Law entering to replace Corbin.

Law, who has been effective overall but has struggled when taking over innings with runners already on base, continued that trend today. The right-hander immediately gave up an RBI single on his first pitch to Korey Lee, with Benintendi racing around to become the 11th runner to score out of the 16 that Law has inherited this year.

"He just threw a hanging slider in that particular moment," Martinez said. "I think teams know when he comes in there, he's going to throw strikes, so be ready. A lot of it has happened early in the count. He's got to understand who he is and know: 'I've got to make a good pitch from the first pitch on.' Last year with inherited runners, he was good. But that's what he was doing. He was burying his cutter, burying his slider. Today, he just left a slider up."

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