You wanted to believe it would be different this time. Really, aren’t teams supposed to be excited to bat with the bases loaded? The pressure’s on the pitcher, not the hitter. It’s the best situation for anyone with a bat in his hands.
Anyone except the 2021 Nationals, who have turned a bases-loaded plate appearance into the most agonizing two minutes in sports.
So when the situation presented itself yet again in the top of the eighth tonight at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. - bases loaded, one out, the Nats down two runs with their No. 4 and No. 5 hitters due up - you could be excused for not being excited about the possibilities, but rather terrified at the potential for disaster.
And you would’ve been correct for feeling the latter. When Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Bell struck out on a combined seven pitches from Rays reliever Ryan Thompson, you weren’t surprised in the least. If anything, it’s exactly what you expected would happen.
“Any situation you’ve got Zim and me coming up, I think everyone’s on the edge of their seats expecting something to happen,” Bell said in a Zoom session with reporters following the Nationals’ 3-1 loss to Tampa Bay. “But I feel like in that moment, you’ve just got to tip your cap. That dude out there was making some pretty good pitches. Eventually mistakes will be made. Eventually we’re going to start driving the ball. Eventually we’re going to start putting crooked numbers up there.”
That’s what they’ve been saying for weeks now, though, during this fast-fading baseball season. They keep waiting for something to change, but 57 games in, nothing has.
“We don’t need a 900-foot home run,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We don’t need a five-run homer. We just need to put the ball in play. ... Just give the same at-bats with runners on base. When you’re not scoring runs, I know it’s tough. You want to be the guy to drive them in. But like I’ve said before: Just be a guy. Relax up there. Just move the baseball. Put the ball in play. And good things will happen.”
They still aren’t getting enough good things from their lineup, especially in those oh-so-critical moments when one good swing could flipped the outcome of the game. And it all came to a head tonight in the top of the eighth.
After loading the bases on three walks (with a fielder’s choice throw into the mix), the Nationals should’ve been in the driver’s seat, with Zimmerman and Bell due up. Rays manager Kevin Cash, though, countered with side-arming right-hander Thompson, who proved far too funky for either hitter to figure out.
Zimmerman struck out on three pitches. Bell managed to take one ball before striking out. And with that, the Nationals’ batting average with the bases loaded this season fell to an unfathomable .145. They’ve recorded eight hits in 55 at-bats.
“We’re not here to make excuses,” Zimmerman said. “We’re not here to say it can’t be done. I give that guy credit. He made pitches in that at-bat. But I’d love to be in that situation again tomorrow. Those are the situations you want to be in. I wish I could come through every time. Everyone in the clubhouse wishes they could, too.”
There were other opportunities to score tonight against electric starter Tyler Glasnow, but the only time the Nats converted was on Trea Turner’s RBI single to center in the third. They also had a rally quashed in the seventh when Bell was thrown out at the plate by left fielder Randy Arozarena on Josh Harrison’s sharp single, a bang-bang call the Nationals challenged but couldn’t get overturned.
“Great send,” Martinez said of third base coach Bob Henley’s decision to wave around Bell (who admitted he didn’t get a good jump off second base because he was worried the line drive might’ve been caught). “I didn’t get to really see it, but I want to see the slo-mo (replay). It was a tough call for the home plate umpire, but I want to see it. I thought he got in there.”
The lack of offense again put pressure on the Nationals pitching staff to be perfect, which again was too much to ask.
On the heels of a bullpen game Sunday in Philadelphia in which seven pitchers were needed to complete eight innings, the Nationals were really hoping for some length from Jon Lester tonight. That hasn’t exactly been the lefty’s specialty this season - he entered this outing having averaged exactly five innings in each of his first seven starts - but he did reach the sixth last week while pitching on short rest, so perhaps there was reason to think he might have even more in him tonight on full rest.
It was clear early on, though, that probably wouldn’t be the case. Not because Lester was all that ineffective, but because he couldn’t get through at least one clean, quick inning.
Manuel Margot opened the bottom of the first blasting a 3-1 cutter to left for a leadoff homer, instantly putting the Nationals in a 1-0 hole. But that’s the only run Lester would allow tonight.
Trouble is, he let three batters reach base in the second, then another two in the third, then another three in the fourth. By the time Margot reached on an infield single with two outs in the fourth - it might’ve been worse if not for an impressive diving stab by Zimmerman behind first base - Lester’s pitch count was already up to 91. And with the bases loaded in a tie game, Martinez didn’t want to press his luck.
“For whatever reason, just couldn’t find the strike zone with anything,” Lester said. “I fell behind in counts, and once you fall behind, you’ve got to figure out a way to get back in the counts. And I just wasn’t able to do that.”
In came Wander Suero, who fell behind Yandy Díaz and was one pitch away from walking in the go-ahead run but bounced back to induce a harmless flyout from the Rays’ No. 2 hitter and bail out Lester.
Suero would not be as fortunate when he retook the mound for the fifth. He walked the first two batters he faced - ending a streak of 42 consecutive batters faced without issuing a walk - and then gave up a bloop single to Mike Brosseau that caught Juan Soto in no man’s land in right field. Unable to reach the ball on the fly, Soto then watched it bounce off the artificial turf and over his head for an RBI single to give Tampa Bay the lead.
The lead would then be extended two batters later when Sam Clay gave up a single to Mike Zunino, part of an agonizing stretch in which Suero and Clay allowed five of six batters to reach, all via single or walk.
“I want those guys to come in and throw strikes,” Martinez said. “They’ve been good. All of a sudden now, we’re starting to walk guys. And when you walk guys, runs are going to score, plain and simple.”
In spite off all that, the Nationals managed not to let the Rays turn this game lopsided. They trailed by two runs heading into the late innings. They remain, as always, close to a breakthrough. They hope.
“That’s what we keep telling ourselves,” Bell said. “That’s what the coaches are coming around saying. We’re going to get through this. Better times ahead.”