Nats can’t convert late chances, get swept by Braves (updated)

You can’t say the Nationals don’t at least give themselves chances. This evening’s game against the Braves was right there for the taking late, in the bottom of the seventh, in the bottom of the eighth and again in the bottom of the ninth. In those final three innings alone, they took 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

And managed only one hit in the process.

In their latest bit of late-inning agony at the plate, the Nationals squandered those golden opportunities to finish a rally and wound up suffering a 3-2 loss to the Braves to complete a three-game sweep at the hands of their division rivals for the first time since April 2014.

“We had the opportunities and didn’t cash in,” said left fielder Kyle Schwarber, who had a costly strikeout with two on in the eighth, in a postgame Zoom session with reporters. “Obviously, we didn’t want to have a sweep here. But it is what it is. We’ve just got to move on. I know it’s cliche and everyone says move on to the next day, but it’s real. Nobody’s going up there trying to get out. Everyone’s trying go up there with a plan and execute it.”

On the day he became the first in club history to reach 411 games as manager, Davey Martinez mostly had the matchups he wanted down the stretch. With two on, nobody out and his team trailing by two runs in the seventh, Martinez sent Juan Soto to the plate to pinch-hit for his pitcher. And even when Soto lined out hard to the left field corner, he knew he still had Trea Turner and then Yadiel Hernandez due up next. For this team at this moment, that’s about as good as it’s gonna get.

But if you’ve been following the Nationals through the season’s first month, you know it doesn’t usually work out like that. They can have the right people at the plate in the right moments and still get the wrong results. Turner and Hernandez each grounded out, and that ended that rally.

“It’s gonna come. It’s gonna come,” Martinez said. “We left a lot of guys on base today. But we also hit the ball fairly hard today. It’s just a matter now of staying consistent. These balls will drop, and we’ll start scoring some runs.”

They did get one ball to drop during another golden opportunity in the eighth, with two on and nobody out: Yan Gomes managed to get one run home with an opposite-field single. But then Schwarber, given a chance to bat against lefty reliever Grant Dayton, struck out on three straight curveballs and Victor Robles was called out by plate umpire Nick Mahrley looking at a 3-2 curveball below his knees.

For Robles, who has repeatedly been told not to expand the zone, it was a particularly frustrating moment in which he wasn’t rewarded for doing exactly what everyone has been telling him to do.

“The great thing about that is, all his teammates went up to him and told him he had an unbelievable at-bat; that was a great at-bat,” Martinez said. “I said the same thing. It’s unfortunate. Nick behind the plate, I thought he did really, really well up to that point. He’s a young umpire, he got caught in the moment.”

Even after all that, the Nationals still had yet another chance in the bottom of the ninth, trailing by a run with the right hitters due up.

Ryan Zimmerman, held back from pinch-hitting earlier, finally got his chance leading off the final inning and immediately produced a 109 mph double into the left field corner. Turner advanced pinch-runner Andrew Stevenson to third with a fly ball to right, but with the tying runner 90 feet away, Hernandez struck out on a slider from closer Will Smith and Josh Harrison sent a fly ball to right to end the game.

“I swung at what I wanted to swing at,” said Harrison, who doubled off the center field wall to ignite the eighth-inning rally. “That’s baseball. You just miss some. At the end of the day, I’ve played this game long enough to know you’ve got to control what you can control. ... I didn’t hit it as flush as the one before. But at the end of the day, I gave myself a chance of getting a ball down.”

As much focus as there was on the late at-bats, there has been no greater predictor of wins and losses for the Nationals this season than their ability or inability to get on the board early. Entering today, they were 10-2 when scoring first, 2-12 when the opponents do. So they knew the task when they took the field for this late-afternoon start on South Capitol Street.

“If you look at anything, that’s been the difference these last few games,” Martinez said. “We’re just not scoring runs early in the game. We’ve got to start doing that. We’re chasing balls early in the game more than late. Late in the game, we’re bearing down on pitches. We’ve just got to try to get on base for the next guy. ... We’ve got to start scoring first, score early and put the pressure on the other team.”

Once again, though, the Nats could not get anything going early at the plate against Drew Smyly, against whom they scored four early runs on opening day. They had a chance in the bottom of the first, with two on and two out, but Josh Bell reached for a fastball off the plate and grounded out to second.

They wouldn’t threaten again until the fourth, and even then it required a defensive mishap to get a runner across the plate. With two out and Bell on first, Schwarber lined a ball to right, then saw Ronald Acuña Jr. boot it for a brief second and took off. Bell and Schwarber would each end up running 270 feet around the bases, and the Nationals were on the board.

Alas, they already trailed at that point because of the Braves’ three-run rally in the top of the inning.

Jon Lester had looked sharp early, facing the minimum over his first three innings and again inducing the kind of weak contact that defined his season debut Friday against the Marlins. But he found trouble in the fourth, allowing a leadoff single to Acuña, who then stole second and reached third on Gomes’ throwing error. A walk of Ozzie Albies set the stage for Marcell Ozuna, who ripped a double into the left field corner to give Atlanta a 1-0 lead.

Ozuna-Slides-Around-Gomes-Sidebar.jpgLester nearly escaped the fourth without suffering any more damage, striking out a pair with two runners in scoring position. But then Ehire Adrianza singled up the middle, and despite a strong throw from Robles, Ozuna managed to slide around Gomes’ tag, and suddenly the deficit was 3-0.

“I think it was the right pitch, just didn’t execute it,” Lester said of his sinker to Adrianza. “I left it up enough to allow him to get under it instead of on top of it. If I execute that, I still like our gameplan there, what we were trying to do. I got the two big outs there, and then just couldn’t really finish that inning.”

That would be the only real blemish on Lester’s pitching line. The veteran lefty finished with the three runs allowed on four hits and two walks over five-plus innings. It wasn’t as impressive as his debut performance, but I was enough to give his team a chance to win.

The Nationals just couldn’t take advantage of that chance. Again.

“We all know what’s at stake and what’s happened in the past week or two in those situations,” Harrison said. “Sometimes you’ve got to slow it down and know to just keep it simple. But that’s easier said than done.”

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