Nats suffering from depleted lineup of free swingers

ATLANTA - It’s easy to look at Sunday’s 4-2 loss to the Braves and place blame at the arms of Shawn Kelley and Tanner Roark, who surrendered the two late home runs that turned a one-run lead into a two-run defeat.

Not that those two right-handers don’t deserve some criticism for their failure to keep the ball in the park at the most critical points of the game, but all of this would be moot if the Nationals did something seemingly simple during the game: score another run.

Hellickson walking away injured.jpgLet’s be honest here. The Nats asked their bullpen to give them 15 2/3 scoreless innings over the final two games of the series. Anything less than that meant defeat. And the relief corps nearly pulled that off. Six pitchers combined to toss seven perfect innings during Saturday’s dramatic extra-inning win. And Jefry Rodriguez and Sammy Solís combined to throw 5 2/3 more scoreless frames Sunday after starter Jeremy Hellickson departed with a hamstring injury two batters in.

It’s tough to ask for much more than that from a taxed bullpen. And the Nationals wouldn’t have needed to ask for so much had they just delivered a couple of timely hits when they needed them most.

The Nats totaled three hits Sunday against Anibal Sanchez, Dan Winkler and Arodys Vizcaino. Three hits. This after they went through a stretch of nine innings Saturday in which they totaled two hits. This after they totaled two hits in Friday night’s loss.

All told, the Nationals collected 19 hits in 41 innings of baseball this weekend, equating to a .137 batting average. They drew only eight walks. They struck out - get this - 44 times.

That’s a problem. And Davey Martinez knows it. The rookie manager also knows some of the problem is a byproduct of a misguided approach in certain situations.

“In big moments, we’ve asked for them to put the ball in play,” Martinez said. “We struck out a few times in big moments today. Unfortunately, we couldn’t score those runs.”

The most notable big moment Sunday came in the top of the ninth, when the Nationals had runners on first and second and nobody out. Mark Reynolds did drive a ball to deep center field that should have advanced Juan Soto to third base, but the 19-year-old didn’t read the play well and never tagged up, pounding himself on the head in frustration afterward.

Even so, there was still a golden opportunity to get the go-ahead run home. Except Brian Goodwin and Michael A. Taylor each struck out, failing to get the bat on the ball when that’s what was needed.

Martinez is trying to pound the idea into players’ heads that contact is more important than a big swing in certain situations (with two strikes, with runners in scoring position). Players may not entirely agree that’s the problem, though.

“I feel like we’ve missed a lot of pitches lately,” Trea Turner said. “I know I have. Me and (Anthony Rendon) talked about it. He feels the same way. I think it’s a matter of not missing those pitches and continuing to compete.”

Turner was asked if that’s a product of poor approach or poor execution, and he suggested it’s the latter.

“I think just hitting balls square,” he said. “I know I’ve been fouling them off. Tony feels like he’s putting them in play but that he should be doing more damage. I won’t speak for him, but I think it’s just - as a whole - I think we can do better. We know we can do better. It’s just a matter of putting those balls in the gaps or places where those guys aren’t.”

The Nationals hit for power. They lead the National League with 75 home runs. But they rank 11th in hits, seventh in runs per game and seventh in batting average with runners in scoring position.

And with a lineup that currently doesn’t include Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton, Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick, Matt Wieters or (at least on Sunday) Matt Adams, the remaining healthy players might be wise to take a lesson from none other than their .310-hitting ace.

“I’m not going to be hitting the ball out of the ballpark, I know that,” Max Scherzer, the offensive hero of Saturday’s win, said. “I’ve got a high school swing, I know that. But you know what? It’s good enough to get a ball in play. Something happens.”

Yes, something happens. Right now, not nearly enough is happening for the Nationals’ lineup of free swingers.

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