Spirited rally can’t make up for Voth’s continued struggles (updated)

That the Nationals stayed in the fight tonight and didn’t roll over after trailing the Marlins by seven runs early is testament to their gumption - even in the middle of a crowd-less, disappointing-to-date 2020 season.

But at the end of an 11-8 loss that saw the home team’s spirited rally fall short, the most significant development of the night was the manner in which that early seven-run deficit came about.

If these were normal times and they had one of baseball’s best rotations, the Nationals could probably afford to keep putting Austin Voth on the mound every five days and give him a chance to figure things out. But these are not normal times and the Nats rotation isn’t anywhere close to being the best in baseball. And with the shortened 2020 season now 43.3 percent complete, there’s simply no more time to keep putting a struggling pitcher on the mound and hope for the best.

“I’ve got to change things quick and get in a groove,” Voth said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “But I know that I’m close.”

Close or not, tonight’s loss might have represented the last chance for Voth, who has shown no signs of progress this season. If anything, the right-hander is regressing, having lasted five innings in his first two starts, four innings his next two times out and only 3 2/3 innings in this one before getting unceremoniously yanked with six runs on the board.

“Our starting pitcher’s got to go deeper in the games,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Voth struggled again today, had almost 75 pitches in 3 2/3 innings. We’ve just got to get him to start throwing strikes.”

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Way back when this season was supposed to begin, Voth was supposed to be the Nationals’ sixth starting pitcher. That is, he was going to open the year as a long man in the bullpen and be ready to assume a rotation spot when someone else went down.

But when the pandemic-shortened campaign actually began one month ago and projected No. 5 starter Joe Ross opted out, Voth suddenly moved into the rotation. And with Stephen Strasburg now expected to miss the rest of the season following carpal tunnel surgery on his right wrist, Voth holds an even more prominent role on the roster.

Can the Nationals afford to keep him there with a 6.65 ERA, a 1.62 WHIP and an average outing of 4 1/3 innings? The in-house alternatives aren’t great. They’re certainly not experienced. But the trade deadline is one week away if general manager Mike Rizzo wants to do something bold.

“I’m not going to jump into conclusions tonight,” Martinez said when asked if he is considering a change to his rotation. “I don’t do that, as you guys know. I’ll assess everything, and I’ll talk to him tomorrow and we’ll go from there.”

The evening began in positive fashion for Voth, who faced the minimum over his first two innings while throwing only 25 pitches. Alas, that hasn’t been the right-hander’s problem this season. He’s had very little trouble facing a lineup the first time through. Voth’s first-inning ERA in five starts is 1.80. It goes up in the second inning, but only to 3.60.

Things begin to fall apart for Voth after that. Just as they did tonight. He gave up a run in the top of the third on two singles and two walks, the latter of them coming with the bases loaded to force in the game’s first run. And then he came completely unglued in the fourth.

The Marlins didn’t beat Voth with big blasts. They took him down bit by bit, slowly and painfully, with singles, walks and even a hit batter. By the time he gave up a two-out, two-run single to Matt Joyce, the fading starter’s pitch count was up to 73, the Marlins’ lead up to 4-0.

Also up: Voth’s inning-by-inning ERA. In the third, it’s now 4.80. In the fourth, it’s a staggering 19.29. (He hasn’t allowed a run in the fifth so far, but he’s only reached that inning twice in five starts.)

“I’m extremely frustrated,” he said. “I know I’m capable of more. I know there’s more in the tank. I just get these at-bats where I’m throwing eight, nine pitches for one batter and then give up a base hit, and I’m fighting again. Then give up another couple of base hits. It’s just frustrating that I can’t go deeper in games right now.”

Javy Guerra entered from the bullpen and tried to clean up the mess but couldn’t do it before allowing three more runs to score, turning this into a 7-0 Marlins rout and leaving the Nationals staring at a massive deficit to try to overcome.

They did try their best to overcome it, though, piece by piece. Three straight two-out hits by Adam Eaton, Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick highlighted a three-run fifth and at least brought the Nats to within reasonable striking distance.

Two more runs in the bottom of the seventh on RBI hits by Soto (now batting .400) and Luis García (now batting .333) should’ve brought them to within close range. But the two-run homer surrendered by Dakota Bacus on a hanging 0-2 slider in the top of the inning negated the later rally and left them trailing by four runs heading into the final innings.

Bacus dug them into an even deeper hole during a two-run top of the eighth. But once again, the Nationals had an answer: Eaton’s three-run homer off Brett Eibner, which improbably made this an 11-8 game.

Alas, that’s as close as they’d get. On a night when their offense scored eight runs and never had a 1-2-3 inning at the plate, the continued struggles of the Nats’ starter made it all moot. And a season that, remarkably, is almost halfway complete, continues to trudge along with less than an ideal winning rate for the defending champions.

“It doesn’t seem like things are out of hand. At all,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “I think there’s maybe a couple teams that aren’t doing well. Everybody else is just kind of grinding away. I think we’re a couple good series away from being right in the thick of things.”

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