There’s no delicate way to put this: The Nationals are a listless bunch on the baseball field right now.
It’s perfectly understandable, given the circumstances. They’re trying to play through a pandemic. Their top slugger remains stuck in quarantine even though he’s passed two official coronavirus tests and several more unofficial ones. Their World Series MVP is sidelined with a nerve injury in his hand. Their face of the franchise is sitting at home watching on TV after opting out of this unprecedented season to protect his family.
And the entire team learned today it will have the entire weekend off because of the Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak, a relief to everyone who had voted Monday not to travel to Miami as scheduled out of concern for their own health.
“We’ve got to forget about everything else going on,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Believe me, I know it’s not easy. We’re here. And we’re doing everything we can to keep our guys safe. Just go out there, relax and have some fun.”
It’s tough to have fun when you’re losing, though, and tonight’s 5-1 defeat at the hands of the Blue Jays was the Nationals’ third straight and fourth in five games to begin this short season.
It’s tough to watch the defending champs play such unspirited baseball these last few nights. They aren’t hitting. They’re giving up solo home runs in bunches. And they making fundamental mistakes all over the place.
There were two more errors in tonight’s loss, both committed by new second baseman Starlin Castro (who has three of them in five games so far). There was also a collision in left-center field that may have helped contribute to a home run. There was a pickoff. And there was a popped up bunt.
“Hitting’s going to come and go,” Martinez said. “The overall play - the defense, the baserunning - we’ve got to clean that up. We’ve got to play better. We’ve got to play better. Can’t make those mental mistakes. Those are mental mistakes, to me. And we’ll get it. We’ve got to go out there and just play baseball.”
It all bears more than a passing resemblance to the first six weeks of the 2019 season, six weeks of bad baseball that somehow didn’t prevent the Nats from ultimately winning the World Series.
Trouble is, there are only 9 1/2 weeks scheduled in the 2020 season, and so every little mistake is compounded by a factor of 2.7.
“In a longer season, you get time to start to figure these things out,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “Now, it’s kind of just magnified. We definitely need to clean it up in the field and kind of relax at the plate. I think if we do those two things, we’ll start to play a little bit better.”
The pitching has been pretty good, but it’s been far from perfect. After watching Aníbal Sánchez surrender four solo homers (and not much else) during Monday’s loss, Austin Voth had to take the mound tonight with a simple goal in mind: Keep the ball in the yard.
Easier said than done. After coasting through a quick top of the first, Voth opened the second by serving up a long fly ball to left to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. As both Victor Robles and Emilio Bonifácio chased the ball to the wall in left-center, it seemed at least one of them had a bead on it. Then they both leaped simultaneously, made contact and fell to the ground as everyone in the park squinted trying to figure out what the result was.
The result was that the ball cleared the fence. Along with Robles’ glove. Who knows if the dynamic young center fielder would’ve been able to haul it back if not for the collision with Bonifácio. Not that it matters, because the contact did happen and Guerrero was credited with a solo homer.
“He said: ‘I felt it hit my glove,’ ” Martinez said of Robles. “But he lost his glove over the fence. He said it really didn’t have anything to do with them running into each other. It just, when he went up, when he came down, the glove hit the fence and fell off.”
There was no drama to the next solo homer, which came two innings later off the bat of Lourdes Gurriel Jr. That 412-foot blast to right-center cleared the fence with plenty of room to spare and continued the Blue Jays’ bizarre power-only production here in D.C.
Through the first 13 innings of this series, Toronto had produced one single, one double, one triple and six solo homers (four off Sánchez, two off Voth).
“I thought I threw well,” Voth said. “I thought I was a little off. The off-speed pitches today were not as sharp as they needed to be. But it was my first start, and I thought it went decently well. I just made a few mistakes and paid with those fastballs middle of the plate.”
Voth did pitch well overall tonight. The only other run he allowed was made possible by Castro’s two-out throwing error in the fifth, which extended the inning and set up Teoscar Hernández’s RBI single to left. But the right-hander departed after 70 pitches in line for the loss because his teammates again couldn’t muster much of anything at the plate.
Martinez attempted a minor lineup switcheroo tonight, bumping Howie Kendrick up to the No. 3 spot, with Asdrúbal Cabrera hitting cleanup and Castro pushed down to sixth. It didn’t make much difference.
The Nationals never found a groove against Tanner Roark, who carved up his former team with ease for five innings. The only slight resemblance to a rally came in the bottom of the third, when Turner poked a two-out double down the right field line and Adam Eaton followed with an RBI single.
Five innings later, they hadn’t recorded another hit. And the only other batter to reach base (Turner, via walk in the sixth) was promptly picked off by reliever Jacob Waguespack.
It was a listless performance that, while perhaps understandable under the circumstances, was no joy to watch.
“It’ll come around,” Turner said. “Just have some fun. Don’t panic.”