The 2020 season is now more than halfway complete, and the defending World Series champs still have won only a single three-game series.
Not even a weekend at Fenway Park against a Red Sox roster that is now a shell of its 2018 championship form could cure what ails the Nationals. The 2019 champs still can’t get consistent starting pitching or consistent offensive production with runners on base.
And because of that, the Nats lost again this afternoon, 9-5, for yet another series loss and yet another reason to wonder if this team has the ability to pull off the kind of second-half surge that will be required to qualify for the postseason, even with an expanded field in this unusual year.
At 12-19, the Nationals own the second-worst record in the National League, topping only the full-on-rebuilding Pirates. The trade deadline comes Monday afternoon, and Pittsburgh will most certainly be selling. The Nats? There’s no indication they plan to sell, but it’s going to be tough for general manager Mike Rizzo to make the case that any deals to add will make enough difference for his underachieving club, even if those inside the clubhouse are steadfast in their belief they can flip the switch the way they so memorably did one year ago.
“A lot of the core leaders and veterans are back from last year,” said reliever Sean Doolittle, who made his first appearance in 20 days this afternoon and recorded two outs without allowing a run, during a postgame Zoom session with reporters. “We never panicked last year, even when we were 19-31 and all that stuff in May. And as rough as things are right now, guys aren’t panicking. Guys are continuing to come every day, committed to their routines and ready to work every single day.”
There’s no shortage of needs, though, and rotation help has got to be at the top of the wish list, especially after another disastrous outing by Austin Voth today.
Much as they hoped today would be different for Voth, the Nationals had to come into this game worried they were going to see more of the same from the struggling right-hander. And when it indeed happened again, it perhaps finally leaves them at decision time for this pitcher.
With a fastball that isn’t topping 92 mph and isn’t fooling hitters, Voth is getting hit hard. He gave up three runs in a bottom of the first that included a mammoth homer by Xander Bogaerts off a light tower high above the Green Monster, a double by Kevin Pillar and an RBI single by backup catcher Kevin Plawecki (who then promptly stole the second base of his career).
The bottom of the second saw three more extra-base hits in succession off Voth, including a home run to right and a double over Adam Eaton’s outstretched reach. By the time he walked off the mound, his pitch count was up to 58, his ERA up to 7.99 in six starts.
“I’m not spinning the ball right, and I’m not having life on my fastball,” Voth said. “If I had 91-92 on my fastball and it had life to it, it would be different. But I’m cutting the ball right now and just not executing my pitches.”
Davey Martinez didn’t send Voth back to the mound for the third inning today. Will the manager send him back to the mound for another start in five days? At this point, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to expect different results. At the same time, the Nationals don’t have many viable alternatives, and Voth is out of options and can’t be sent down to the alternate training site in Fredericksburg without first passing through waivers.
“We’ve got to reassess what’s going on with him,” Martinez said. “He’s falling behind. I don’t think he’s pitching aggressive enough. I’m going to talk to him again and see where he’s at, but we need to get more out of him. We’re playing games every day when he’s out there, and when he’s falling behind, it’s tough. It’s the big leagues. It’s tough to come back every day like that.”
Martinez had little choice but to pull Voth after two innings today, but that did put an awful lot of pressure on his bullpen to provide not just innings but quality innings if his team was going to have any chance of mounting a comeback.
And when Javy Guerra gave up three quick runs in the third, including Bobby Dalbec’s first career homer on a moonshot down the right field line that Eaton never appeared to see, the odds of the Nats keeping this game close appeared slim.
“One of the things that makes a good outfielder great is when you can take your eye off the ball and you can see where the ball is going to end up,” Eaton said. “And today, if you took your eye off the ball, it might be a whole 10-15 feet farther than where you think it might be. So when I took my eye off the ball to try to get to the wall as quickly as I could ... once I went to look up where the ball was, it was already way by where my eyes originally thought.”
Despite the rough third inning, Guerra battled back to get through the fourth unscathed. Dakota Bacus then followed with two scoreless frames of his own, keeping the Red Sox’s run total at eight. And sure enough, the Nationals lineup did do enough to make a game of it, thanks in no small part to the hottest hitter in the majors.
With a pair of singles to open his afternoon, Trea Turner tied the club record (previously set by himself in 2016 and Dmitri Young in 2007) with hits in eight consecutive at-bats. His third-inning base hit was part of a two-run rally that included RBIs from Juan Soto and Asdrúbal Cabrera.
With the wind howling and the sun wreaking havoc on outfielders in rare fashion - “I don’t remember a game here when both things came into play,” Boston manager Ron Roenicke told reporters - the Nats finally took a little advantage, getting solo homers by Josh Harrison (to center) and Eric Thames (to right). And when Eaton ripped an RBI triple to right in the fifth, they had cut the deficit to 8-5 and looked like they might just be able to keep the pressure on.
But as has been the case throughout the season’s first month-plus, the Nationals could not finish strong. They went down quietly over the final four frames, and remain one of the majors’ least-productive lineups from the seventh inning on.
It’s yet another way the 2020 club bears no resemblance to the 2019 club. And it could have a profound impact on what happens next.
“We’re starting to swing the bats,” Martinez said. “We’re hitting the ball. We’re scoring runs. We’ve just got to get our starting pitching figured out, and then we’ll go from there.”