The first inning was all too familiar, the Nationals digging themselves into an early hole yet again. The middle innings featured an unexpected (and encouraging) twist, as the lineup came to life and a laboring starter found his groove. But by the time the bottom of the ninth arrived at Truist Park in Atlanta this evening, the result was a re-run for a Nats team that cannot figure out how to change the losing formula that is playing out nearly every night.
This 5-3 loss to the Braves did feature a few uplifting developments. Joe Ross bounced back from an awful bottom of the first to salvage his start and give his team a chance. And a lineup that scored a grand total of three runs during a three-game sweep at the hands of the Brewers over the weekend managed to score three runs in the top of the fourth alone.
But those positive developments alone weren’t enough to create a new ending for a Nationals club that has dropped five in a row and has now fallen eight games under the .500 mark for the first time this season.
“I don’t care when the runs come - first inning, second inning, eighth, ninth, we win the game from the first inning on, or we come from behind and win - as long as you score more runs than the other team,” shortstop Trea Turner said from Atlanta during a postgame Zoom session with reporters. “There’s no bright spots or dark spots. It’s: ‘Did you win?’ And we didn’t do that today.”
Having now reached the 50-game mark that proved the turning point during their championship run in 2019, these Nats are only two games better than that squad was, sitting a disappointing 21-29 and last in the National League East.
“It’s the same story every day,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I know I sound like a broken record, but we’ve just got to keep playing hard. I told them the tides will turn. We’ll bloop something in there one of these days with guys on base. We’ve just got to keep going.”
The pattern has become awfully predictable, and it certainly looked like it was headed down that same path today.
Anyone who watched the first inning could be excused for thinking the worst. After a week’s worth of struggles in the opening frame, the Nationals struggled through perhaps their worst yet.
They gave themselves a chance to take a quick lead when Josh Harrison singled and Juan Soto (back in the No. 3 spot after leading off Sunday) drew the first of his back-to-back walks. But when Josh Bell popped up on a 3-0 pitch and Kyle Schwarber struck out on three pitches from Charlie Morton, the groans could be heard from every living room in the region.
And the bottom of the first was even worse, with Ross slogging his way through a torturous, 32-pitch inning that ended with three Braves crossing the plate. There weren’t any particularly well-struck hits, but a pair of check-swing singles combined with three walks produced a 3-0 lead for Atlanta and more heads banging against the wall by Nats fans who had seen this act before.
Over their last five games, the Nationals have been outscored in the first inning, 8-0. And in none of the previous four did they come from behind to win.
“Once again, we’ve got to get out of that first inning,” Martinez said. “First inning’s hurting us. Joe gave up one hard-hit ball, but the walks hurt us that inning.”
Ronald Acuña Jr.’s solo homer in the bottom of the second only added to the misery, and left the Nats staring at a 4-0 hole. But then something suddenly clicked for Ross, and his evening took a dramatic turn in the complete opposite direction.
The right-hander would proceed to retire 11 batters in a row, six via strikeout. Perhaps taking a bit off his fastball in order to better command it, he induced a Max Scherzer-esque 22 swings and misses. And in doing so, he salvaged a start that looked like it was going off the rails early.
“I feel like just a lot of adrenaline tends to be in the first inning,” Ross said. “Just kind of amped up to be out there on the mound, and then kind of settling in from there. But I feel like it never tends to be an issue late in the game. By then you’re settled in, you find your rhythm and tempo.”
In keeping the Braves at four runs, Ross at least gave his teammates a chance to rally. It hasn’t been happening with any regularity, but it did finally happen tonight, thanks to a three-run rally in the top of the fourth keyed by the latest big blast from a previously slumping slugger who seems to have figured things out.
Bell has begun to turn his wayward season around over the last three weeks by timing up fastballs at long last. And several of those fastballs have wound up in the seats beyond the left-center field wall, as his two-run homer off an 0-2 fastball from Morton tonight did.
Bell’s seventh homer of the year (his fourth in 17 games) got the Nationals on the board. And when Ross delivered his second RBI single in a week, they had reduced the deficit to 4-3. But with a chance to really complete the rally, Turner struck out on a 96 mph fastball from Morton, one of the leadoff man’s four strikeouts during the game’s first six innings.
Turner would have another chance to tie the game in the sixth, with a runner on third and two out after Andrew Stevenson bunted Yan Gomes over from second, but Yadiel Hernandez (pinch-hitting for Ross) couldn’t get him home. Now facing reliever Luke Jackson, Turner swung badly at a slider, yet another breaking ball he couldn’t touch on a night full of them.
“I got, like, one pitch to hit in each of my at-bats for the most part, and just fouled off or missed it,” Turner said of only the fourth four-strikeout game of his career, first since 2018. “That happens more often than not. If you miss the pitch you need to hit in any at-bat - whether it’s the first one, second one, whenever it comes - if you miss it, it’s going to be a tough at-bat.”