After a wild weekend in New York, here’s what we know about the Nationals ...
* They continue to have an issue closing out winnable games late.
* They continue to put themselves in position to close out winnable games late.
Yes, those back-to-back losses to the Mets on Friday and Saturday nights were gut-punches, from Sean Doolittle’s bottom-of-the-ninth meltdown in the opener to Fernando Rodney’s eighth-inning travails the following night.
Two games the Nationals absolutely should have won did not end up as wins. And that’s been a recurring theme all season, even as the team as a whole has dramatically improved.
Here, though, is the flip side to the story, and reason to remain somewhat optimistic as the season approaches the fourth quarter: The Nationals almost always are in position to win games at the end. Like, almost every single night.
We mentioned this stat last month, back when it still constituted an actual streak. The Nationals played 27 consecutive games in which they either were tied or ahead in the seventh inning or later. The streak began June 16 against the Diamondbacks and ended July 21 against the Braves.
It’s not intact anymore, but the Nats are still doing the same thing almost every night. They’ve still either been tied or ahead in the seventh inning or later in 43 of their last 47 games, including each of the last seven games of their just-completed nine-game road trip.
The problem? The Nationals’ record in these last 47 games is 30-17. That’s very good, but it’s not as good as it could be, given how often they’re in position to win late. In short, 13 of their last 17 losses have come via their bullpen in the seventh inning or later.
Plain and simple, they have to win more of these games that are ripe for the taking late. They’re not going to win them all. Nobody does. But they can’t afford to keep losing 30 percent of those games.
The good news: The Nationals don’t face the Mets (who have been responsible for an outsized share of these gut-punch losses) again for another three weeks. Doolittle looked much more like his old self during a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth Sunday. Daniel Hudson has been fantastic in seven appearances since his acquisition. And this team’s best and brightest offensive stars continue to shine in moments of significance.
Had the bullpen simply taken care of business Friday and Saturday, we’d be raving right now about the manner in which Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto and Victor Robles carried the Nationals to a series sweep of a previously red-hot opponent. Even in losing two of three, we should be raving about those three players, because they were sensational all weekend.
Rendon went 7-for-14 with a triple, a homer, three RBIs, four runs scored, two go-ahead RBIs and a couple of sensational defensive plays. Soto went 5-for-10 with a double, three homers, five RBIs, four runs scored and two go-ahead RBIs. Robles was only 2-for-8, but his two-run homer in the ninth Sunday against Mets closer Edwin Díaz made a huge difference, and he also made a fantastic catch up against the center field wall late in Saturday’s game.
Robles, of course, was only playing Sunday because Soto injured his ankle in scary fashion rounding third base. The immediate news on Soto was that he suffered a sprained ankle, potentially far less severe than it initially appeared. Though true confirmation of the severity of the injury won’t come for another day or two, until he’s back in the lineup and suffering no ill effects.
The Nationals simply cannot afford to be without Soto for any length of time. Same for Rendon. Those two are carrying the lineup right now, delivering huge hits in huge moments.
They need help, though. The Nats need others in the lineup to step up on a more consistent basis. Robles has had his moments, including the ninth inning Sunday. Trea Turner had a nice weekend. But this team needs more consistent production from its first basemen, its catchers and its second basemen.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier. The Reds, who have won six of their last eight, open a three-game series at Nationals Park tonight. Then the Brewers, currently 1/2-game out of the National League’s second wild card position, come to town this weekend.
What we’ve seen from the Nationals over the last two months suggests they will continue to put themselves in position to win almost every single night. They just have to prove they can actually win those tense games late at a higher rate than we’ve become accustomed to during this wild season.