As a significant portion of the sporting world stepped off the field and the court tonight in an attempt to redirect attention toward racial inequality and police brutality, the Nationals and Phillies played as scheduled, the domino effect of the Milwaukee Bucks’ decision to call off their NBA playoff game having not had much time to reach Washington before this early 6:05 p.m. ballgame.
Players, managers and others with both clubs surely will have things to say about what’s happening in this country outside of sports soon enough. But for now, they attempted to play baseball as usual, at least as usual as it gets in 2020.
The ensuing result - a 3-2 Nationals loss made possible by some late defensive misplays - doesn’t matter as much in the larger scheme of things. But from a pure baseball standpoint, it was rather emblematic of this fast-fading season for the defending World Series champions.
Despite getting a quality start from Patrick Corbin and just enough early offense to take a lead into the late innings, the Nats couldn’t finish off the Phillies and wound up dropping their second straight to ensure another series loss and a continued place at the bottom of the National League East.
Now 11-17, the Nationals are digging themselves deeper and deeper into a hole that, while not impossible to climb out of, is growing more daunting each day.
“Most of your guys build up as the course of the season goes along,” veteran Howie Kendrick said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “And you see all your really good, talented guys get hot August and September. Now we’re starting the season in August and September, and you’re building up like it would be April. With that being said, I think we’ll start playing some really good baseball. We haven’t been playing terrible baseball, by any means. We’d like to see a lot more wins, as well. But I think we just have to continue doing what we’ve been doing, maybe clean a few things up. But other than that, I love our team, and I love the guys we have here. We’ve just got to keep competing.”
They did give themselves a chance in the bottom of the ninth, getting a leadoff double from Kendrick that required a replay review to confirm he slid in just ahead of Jean Segura’s tag. Rookie Luis García’s opposite-field single moved pinch-runner Michael A. Taylor to third with one out, but new Phillies closer Brandon Workman struck out both Eric Thames and Victor Robles on curveballs to end the game on a day when sports felt secondary to loftier matters.
The widespread ramifications of the Bucks’ decision were just starting to make their way around the baseball world when the Nats took the field shortly after 6 p.m. With most weeknight home start times pushed up an hour this season because there’s no need to worry about attending fans fighting traffic, this game was already well underway before the Brewers and Reds decided not to play, prompting other clubs on the West Coast to do the same.
“I just now started reading what was happening, what was going on,” Martinez said after the game, his voice beginning to crack. “I would say this, though: I’m proud of the NBA. I’m proud of all the people who stand for justice. You know the way I feel about all this stuff: It’s horrible. We need change. We’ve got to come up with some kind of conclusion, because this is bad.”
Though they didn’t have a chance to talk as a group before tonight’s game, Martinez said he plans to meet with his players and seek their input on how they want to proceed. As was the case in other clubhouses across the sport today, the Nationals manager expects consensus and support for whatever stance Black players choose to take regarding upcoming games.
“If any one of our guys are going to not play, I truly believe we’re all going to stick together,” Martinez said. “We’re going to talk about it, and we’ll see what transpires from our conversation. But once again, it’s a travesty that these things keep happening. It’s got to go away. We’ve got to have change.”
On an abnormal evening, here’s what did feel normal: Juan Soto. The perpetually red-hot slugger opened the bottom of the second by lashing Aaron Nola’s first pitch to left field for a solo homer, his eighth in 20 games played this season.
Six of those eight homers have been hit to the opposite field, with one to straightaway center. The lone home run Soto has pulled to right field this year cleared the second deck at Citi Field in New York.
The Phillies got the run right back, though, when Rhys Hoskins took advantage of a hanging first-pitch curveball by Corbin in the top of the third and lofted it deep to left-center for the game-tying homer.
That was one of Corbin’s few mistakes on the evening. The left-hander put together one of his best outings of the season, even though he didn’t do it in his typical fashion. Unable to get the Phillies to swing and miss at his sliders, Corbin instead found success inducing weak contact. He struck out only two batters through his first 5 2/3 innings but recorded nine outs via ground balls or popups.
“Just located my fastball there on a lot of those,” he said. “They’ve got some veteran hitters over there in their lineup. They know what I have. I like to try to pitch to some of their weaknesses.”
When the Nationals took advantage of back-to-back walks and Kendrick’s RBI single to open the fourth, they had themselves a 2-1 lead. Now they just needed to hold it.
As the game reached the top of the seventh, Corbin returned to the mound, his pitch count at 94. With the left-handed Didi Gregorius leading off, Davey Martinez needed to get only one more out from his starter before turning it over to the bullpen. But then came a series of defensive misplays that changed the course of the game.
Gregorius sent a sinking liner to left, and though Soto made a legitimate attempt to snag the ball, it got past him and rolled toward the fence, producing a leadoff triple.
“You’ve got to understand the situation of the game, where we’re at, up one run,” Martinez said. “For me, you concede the base hit. He’s young, he’s learning. But you just concede the base hit. You keep him at first base and hope for a double play.”
So Martinez made the move to the bullpen and asked Will Harris to escape the jam with no margin for error. Seconds later, Alec Bohm’s sharp grounder got past a diving Thames at first base, and the game was tied.
It didn’t stay tied for long. After recording the first out on a poor bunt attempt by Roman Quinn, Harris got Andrew McCutchen to hit a fly ball to right-center that was deep but easily playable. Just one problem: Both Robles and Adam Eaton called for it and went for it. Neither caught it, and so what should’ve been the second out of the inning instead was a gift single.
“When the ball was hit, I knew Victor was playing him to pull,” Eaton said. “So right off the bat, I thought it was going to be my ball, because he’s so far. But he has such unbelievable range. I felt the need to call it right there at the tail end. And as I called it and as he was speeding in, he called it right at the same time. And of course when you yell, you don’t hear anything. So it was just poor timing. I don’t know if we could’ve really done anything differently.”
And what should’ve been the third out of the inning (Hoskins’ flyout to right) was instead only the second out. And that allowed Bryce Harper to step to the plate in a big spot and poke an RBI single to left to give the Phillies the lead.
It was a classic example of good situational hitting from Harper. But if the Nationals had done their job in the field earlier in the inning, it might never have been possible.
“It’s unfortunate, because we were playing a pretty clean game,” Martinez said. “And then the seventh inning, we had a misplayed ball in the outfield, two guys collided. A ground ball past Thames. We just can’t give teams that many outs. I talk about it all the time. It’s tough to win ballgames like that.”