One week into a season that didn’t start when they expected and didn’t include the roster they expected, the Nationals have established a fairly common daily narrative. And not an uplifting one.
The typical game has played out like this: An impressive outing by the starter is squandered by a lack of offense (especially a lack of power), with some shaky fundamentals and maybe a late home run served up by the bullpen thrown in for good measure.
That formula added up to a 3-0 loss to the Dodgers this afternoon in Los Angeles and a 1-5 start to a season that is teetering into dangerous territory already.
“What often happens is that when your team’s not scoring runs, you put a little added pressure on yourself to be the guy to drive those guys in,” manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session. “And I’m seeing a little bit of that right now. Guys are really pressing, just because they want to win and they want to drive the runs in, and all of a sudden you see guys maybe swinging a little harder, maybe chasing pitches that they don’t normally chase. We’ve just got to relax, go out there and do the little things, and move the baseball around. I mean, it’s going to happen. We get those bigger guys in the middle of our lineup back, they’ll take their walks and we’ll have opportunities to do different things.”
Yes, things should and will get better when Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber and Josh Harrison are cleared from their COVID-19-related quarantines and can join the team at last - perhaps as soon as Monday in St. Louis - but those three regulars alone aren’t going to fix everything that plagues the Nats at this moment.
They’ve got to find ways to score runs, and to do so without relying on singles and singles alone. They’ve got to make every play in the field (which they didn’t do today) and not make unnecessary outs on the bases (which they did earlier in the weekend) and they can’t afford for their bullpen to make things any worse late (which again happened today when Tanner Rainey served up a two-run insurance homer to rookie Zach McKinstry).
All of this, it should be noted, came against the Dodgers, the defending World Series champions. And the series loss that preceded it came against the Braves, who took the Dodgers to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series last October. So, evaluate the Nationals with both the state of their roster and the quality of their opposition in mind.
“For me, it’s not necessarily who we played, which obviously matters, but it’s how we’ve played,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “I thought we played great. We had guys competing. We’re not giving anything away. We played pretty good defense. We pitched pretty well. And we’ve hit pretty well. We, just in those RBI situations, haven’t come through. Other than that, I think we’re playing pretty good baseball. Keep that going. If we keep playing like this all year long, I think we’ll be just fine.”
If nothing else, the Nationals are getting some very good work from their rotation, and today they got better-than-good work from Max Scherzer in a star-studded showdown vs. Clayton Kershaw.
The pitching matchup, pitting two of the 10 men to ever win three Cy Young Awards against each other, looked great on paper. And then it looked just as good in person, the two veteran hurlers displaying peak form on a mid-April afternoon and hardly appearing to be nearing the tail ends of their careers.
It sounds silly to make a big deal out of it, given his sparkling resume, but Scherzer’s 1-2-3 bottom of the first felt really important given his struggles out of the chute on opening day (and some other notable big games he’s started in recent years). No such issues this time; the right-hander retired the side on seven pitches and set the tone for his outing.
“When he gets (through the first inning) at less than 15 pitches or so, I feel good about that,” Martinez said. “I think he’s starting to understand that you can go deeper in the game when you start getting those early outs and attacking the strike zone. You saw it today.”
Even the one blemish wasn’t Scherzer’s fault. With two out and a runner on first in the bottom of the second, he watched as McKinstry lofted a high fly ball deep to left-center. Off the bat, it appeared like a semi-routine play for Victor Robles, but then it became clear Robles wasn’t seeing the ball clearly in front of the Southern California sun. He couldn’t recover in time, and the ball landed near the wall for a hard-luck, RBI double and a 1-0 lead for the Dodgers.
“You got to get your glove up as quick as possible,” Martinez, a former outfielder, said when asked if there is a technique to overcoming a ball in the sun. “And you’ve almost got to play the sun and find where you can get either behind the ball and try to find the ball coming through, or even let the ball get a little bit behind you and let it come out and then go get it. Once you get it, and you’re trying to run and you don’t see the ball, a lot of times you’re not going to see it. You’re battling. So for (Robles), it was just a ball that never got out of the sun.”
On most days, that one run wouldn’t have loomed so large. On this day, it felt massive.
That’s because Kershaw was in command throughout, and that meant opportunities would be few and far between for a Nationals lineup that remains limited with three regulars waiting to be cleared.
“You know you’re going to be in a close ballgame when you’re going up against Kersh,” Scherzer said. “He pitched great today, and unfortunately we weren’t able to score any runs. But that’s what you kind of expect when you get into a battle with the Dodgers, and with him on the mound. You’ve got to be at your A game. Unfortunately, this one pitch where the ball was able to get down for a double and the run was scored. A lot of times that doesn’t necessarily beat you, but today it did.”
The Nats managed one single apiece in their first four offensive innings, but nothing more off Kershaw. They got a perfectly placed dribbler that came to a rest directly on the chalk halfway down the third base line from Turner to open the sixth, then saw the speedy shortstop swipe second base on a ball in the dirt for a golden scoring opportunity.
But the heart of the lineup couldn’t advance Turner so much as 90 feet, let alone the 180 needed to score. Juan Soto was caught looking at a perfectly placed slider from Kershaw down and away, Ryan Zimmerman grounded out on the first pitch he saw and unlikely No. 5 hitter Jordy Mercer struck out on another slider to kill the Nats’ best chance against the Cooperstown-bound lefty.
Another opportunity came in the eighth against Blake Treinen when Andrew Stevenson and Robles singled to kick start a potential rally. But Turner struck out on a 3-2 cutter, Soto popped up a 3-0 cutter and Zimmerman tapped out weakly to the mound to end that inning in disappointing fashion.
Thus did a disturbing early-season trend for the Nationals continue. Though they are recording hits, they’re not recording extra-base hits. Through six games, they’ve now totaled 41 singles, six doubles, zero triples and four homers (two apiece from Turner and Soto).
Things should get better once Bell and Schwarber join the lineup - perhaps as soon as Monday - but those two sluggers alone can’t provide all of this team’s power. Others are going to have to start to turn singles into doubles and homers.
“Being shut out is not fun,” said Turner, who has already experienced that feeling three times in six games. “I think putting points, putting runs on the scoreboard, would be nice. But I think you can look at it either positively or negatively. And for me, I like to do the positive side. I thought we had some really good at-bats and stuff to build on. And when those start falling with runners in scoring position, we’re going to be pretty good.”