Lifeless Nats fall into early hole, get swept for first time (updated)

MILWAUKEE - No matter how agonizing the losses have been up to this point, the Nationals have been able to legitimately say they played hard and walked off the field at the end of the day confident that a lack of effort was not the issue.

They had to answer that question, though, after today’s 7-3 loss to the Brewers, even after a last-ditch rally in which they brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning. The outcome of the game was understandable, but the manner in which they came out flatter than a slice of Wisconsin cheddar and dug themselves into an early hole via all manner of gaffes raised a valid question: Were they just not ready to take the field for this matinee at Miller Park?

“No,” outfielder Adam Eaton insisted. “I wish you guys could see us warm up before a game. We’re all ready to run through a wall as soon as that game hits. It’s not like we’re half asleep. We’re professionals. I know what you mean by that, (when) you come out a little flat. But we come out ready to go. There’s a human element to it, for sure, but it’s not one of those things.”

The Nationals (14-22) have had a brutal travel experience through the first two legs of this 10-game trip. Their roster is a hodgepodge of backups and call-ups and players being used in unfamiliar roles out of necessity because of an injured list overflowing with big names. They’re facing the toughest stretch of their early-season schedule, going up against some of the National League’s best opposition.

Those are valid excuses for losing a game. Not for losing the way the Nationals did today.

Knowing they needed to deliver a clean performance to avoid their first series sweep of the season, they instead made three defensive misplays, allowed a towering home run, issued two walks and a ran a 3-0 count to the No. 8 hitter with the bases loaded. All in the first inning.

“We keep beating ourselves right now,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We’ve got to come out and just play baseball. We battled back again. But we’ve got to start playing clean baseball, stop giving the other teams 30 outs and playing good baseball.”

The ugliest moment of the first inning came via Eaton, who seemed to track down Eric Thames’ lazy fly ball down the left field line with ease, only to realize too late he had overrun the ball by five feet. It landed in fair territory, untouched, allowing a run to score, Eaton scrambling to pick it up and fire it back to the infield.

“No excuse, just a bad read,” he said. “Can’t happen.”

Eaton’s misplay stood out from the pack, but it wasn’t the only one in the inning. Anthony Rendon, who did make a couple fine plays at third base later in the game, booted a sharp grounder right at him. Victor Robles, fielding Orlando Arcia’s two-out, bases-loaded single, hesitated as if he didn’t know where to throw the ball, then overthrew the plate. Jeremy Hellickson, astutely backing up on the play, had a chance to get the trailing runner at third but bounced his throw.

By the time it was all over, the Brewers led 4-0, and a Nationals team that had scored one total run in the series to that point should have had little reason to believe a comeback was in the cards.

Hellickson-Winds-Gray-sidebar.jpg“You listen to those guys, and you listen to the coaches. We get a hit and they’re all clapping, they’re all pushing,” Martinez said. “We score a run and they’re all jacked up. They’ve just got to feed off of that. And they’ve each got to believe in each other and continue to fight.”

Hellickson may not have been helped by his defense, but the veteran right-hander didn’t help himself out, either. He served up a hanging curveball to Christian Yelich that was promptly blasted into oblivion. He walked two batters in the first, then fell behind 3-0 to Arcia with two outs and the bases loaded before surrendering the two-run single.

Mike Moustakas’ two-run homer in the second was the capper, producing the fifth and sixth runs of the afternoon against Hellickson (though three of them were unearned).

“Things like (the defensive mistakes) happen,” Hellickson said. “You’ve got to pick guys up, and try to get out of there and minimize the damage as much as you can. ... It’s just one of those innings you want to forget about.”

Down 7-0 in the sixth after Matt Grace served up a homer to the second batter he faced out of the bullpen, the Nationals finally showed signs of life late. They scored a run in the sixth and two more in the seventh. Then they loaded the bases in the ninth inning and brought the tying run to the plate against Josh Hader before the Brewers closer struck out Kurt Suzuki and Eaton to end it.

The final frame may have showed some gumption, but the preceding three hours didn’t seem to show the same.

And so now, on the heels of their first series sweep of the season, a 1-5 start to the road trip, 11 losses in 14 games and a lifeless performance this afternoon, the Nationals head west to Los Angeles, where the dominant Dodgers await for a four-game set that could be quite telling.

“I wouldn’t even worry about wins,” Eaton said. “I just think better baseball overall needs to happen. Even if the wins aren’t coming, at least you’re playing better baseball. ...

“It’s going to turn eventually, sooner rather than later. No one’s going to feel sorry for us. No one really cares. And we’re down on ourselves right now. But we’re going to pick ourselves up, and it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.”

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