There are a couple of ways to think about the Nationals’ season-opening series.
You can take the optimistic view and point out that in spite of their severely depleted roster, the Nats showed themselves to be pretty much on par with the Braves and very easily could’ve won the three-game series or even swept it.
Or you can take the pessimistic view and lament the fact that the series was indeed right there for the taking, and the Nats instead gave it to the Braves by blowing an early lead in Wednesday’s doubleheader opener and then wasting Stephen Strasburg’s gem in the nightcap.
So which conclusion is fair to draw?
“You could look at it both ways, honestly,” manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “The first game was kind of disappointing because we scored four runs in the first. But we’re talking about a pretty good team over there. You’ve got to play the whole game. In the second game, you get an unbelievable pitching performance and we just couldn’t get anything going offensively.
“I’ll tell you right now: What these boys have been through, what they did in the last 25 hours - which we had to play three games - I’m very proud and very pleased the way they went out and played. They left it all out on the field.”
It would’ve been a challenging two-day stretch for any club, let alone one missing nine key veterans due to COVID-19 protocols. So, the Nationals deserve some credit for holding their own against one of the best teams in the National League.
Think about the team they were putting out there. Hernán Pérez started all three games, one of them at first base. Erick Fedde, the organization’s sixth or seventh starter, was on the mound for the second game of the season. Sam Clay and Cody Wilson both made their major league debuts in the span of minutes. Tres Barrera, who had all of two innings of big league experience behind the plate, caught Strasburg.
“I think that’s the exciting thing, just to see some of these young guys come in,” said Strasburg, who actually requested to work with Barrera after remembering liking him from a minor league rehab start several years ago. “You’ve heard about them and stuff, and they get the opportunity. And none of them seem fazed by it. I think you just see the improvement and the comfort level just improving every single time. And I just know that over the course of the season, those guys are going to help us, cause it’s going to take all of us if we’re going to do anything great this year.”
And there were some legitimately encouraging performances by some of the less-experienced players.
Clay struck out Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna back-to-back despite falling behind in the count 3-0 to each of the sluggers. Kyle Finnegan struck out the side Wednesday with fastballs that ranged from 96 to 98 mph. Carter Kieboom put together a solid plate appearance late in the opening day win and drew a walk. Kyle McGowin retired seven of eight batters faced out of the bullpen.
“Regardless of what you want to say, they’re a big part of our club,” Martinez said. “And they’re going to help us. It just so happened that they had to come up here and help us now. But I see these guys coming up here and helping us throughout the whole year. We need these guys, and to watch them go out there and compete the way they did, I was pretty excited about that.”
If only all those contributions had helped produce another win. And there were two more wins there for the taking.
Fedde’s painful start in Wednesday’s opener, in which he was handed a 5-1 lead in the second inning and blew it in the span of eight batters, was the most notable misfire. But Wander Suero didn’t help matters when he gave up two hits and uncorked two wild pitches in the seventh inning, allowing Atlanta to score an insurance run that actually proved the final margin of victory.
And though the makeshift lineup was shut out by Huascar Ynoa, Luke Jackson and Sean Newcomb in the 2-0 nightcap loss, Tanner Rainey’s inability to keep Pablo Sandoval in the yard in the decisive seventh inning killed any chance of another rousing walk-off win.
The challenge only gets tougher now, with a three-game series at Dodger Stadium this weekend against the defending World Series champs. And though it’s possible some of the quarantined players could be cleared to play before the end of the weekend, the Nationals will continue to be shorthanded for a little while longer.
That’s what made the opening series against the Braves particularly frustrating to accept. Sure, a 1-2 record is acceptable under the circumstances. But when 2-1 or even 3-0 was within reach, it leaves a bitter taste in everyone’s mouths.