There were events out of their control, from their starter for this bullpen game, Austin Voth, taking a fastball to his face in the top of the third to a string of poorly struck balls by the Phillies that somehow didn’t become outs to a 20-minute delay in the top of the eighth after the backstop netting at Citizens Bank Park collapsed. (Yes, that last event actually happened.)
But there were so many things the Nationals could’ve done better today to make this game far more competitive than it was. They could’ve hit better with runners in scoring position, a lot better. They could’ve thrown more strikes in critical moments, way more strikes. And they could’ve made more plays in the field during their most torturous half-inning of baseball in 2021, possibly in several years prior to this one as well.
Today’s 12-6 loss represented a new low point in a season that has already seen several of them, despite being only 56 games old. It felt that way both because of some almost comically bad luck, but also because of some comically bad baseball that accompanied it.
“It was a crazy day,” manager Davey Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “My mood really swung when I saw Voth get hit. From that moment on, I wasn’t happy. ... But we had to keep playing the game. And then we start giving up all these runs. And then the net falls on our head. That was the topper of the day right there.”
It all made for a miserable 4 hours, 26 minutes on a 90-degree Sunday afternoon, one that saw its most frightening moment come in the top of the third with Voth at the plate.
Squaring around to bunt with a runner on first (Victor Robles, who had just been hit by a pitch himself), Voth couldn’t get out of the way of Vince Velasquez’s 90 mph high-and-tight fastball. The ball appeared to graze off the bill of Voth’s helmet before striking the left side of his face, knocking him to the ground.
As Martinez raced from the dugout, director of athletic training Paul Lessard put a towel over Voth’s nose, which was bleeding. The right-hander was able to walk off the field under his own power, still holding the towel over his face.
“It’s really scary,” said Martinez, who revealed Voth suffered a broken nose that will need to be reset, forcing the right-hander to remain overnight in Philadelphia. “I almost fell over my seat on the bench, just to try to get out there. Because we knew right away. When you get hit in the head, it’s ugly.”
While attributing no intention to Velasquez for his wildly errant pitch, Martinez used this incident to raise a concern he has about Major League Baseball’s recent attempt to prevent pitchers from using various sticky substances to get a better grip of the ball (and perhaps, in some cases, get an edge by increasing their spin rate).
“I hate to bring it up, but you’ll see more of that if we keep messing around with the stuff about the balls,” Martinez said. “I understand them trying to clean some stuff up. But it’s hot, it’s slippery, it’s sweaty. I know Velasquez didn’t throw in there intentionally, but I’m afraid that if we don’t come up with something unified for everybody, you’ll see a lot more of that. And that’s a scary feeling.”
The Voth scare came after plate umpire Brian O’Nora took a foul ball off his facemask in the top of the first, then took himself out of the game in the bottom of the inning when he apparently recognized he needed attention.
All of this came on a day when the Nationals were forced to throw a bullpen game to account for Stephen Strasburg’s neck injury and Erick Fedde’s inability to get a rehab start done in time to take over that spot in the rotation. Martinez was hoping for three innings out of Voth; he wound up getting two perfect frames.
Wander Suero followed and retired the side in the bottom of the third, offering some hope the bullpen might be able to get through this game and lead the Nationals to a series victory. And when the lineup scratched out one run in the third and two more in the fourth to take a 3-0 lead, a positive vibe still hovered around the visitors.
Within that rally, though, was a missed opportunity for a huge inning. The Nats loaded the bases with nobody out in the third, and had the heart of the lineup coming up. But after Juan Soto singled in one run, Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber each struck out and Starlin Castro popped out, leaving the team batting an unfathomable .151 (8-for-53) with the bases loaded this season.
“I saw some of the swings today, and they were really hard,” Martinez said. “I think they’re trying to hit the ball 800 feet. I think definitely right now when we get guys on base, our 3-4-5 hitters today were pressing a little bit trying to knock in those runs. We’ve got to get them to relax. Stay in the at-bat, and just hit the ball hard somewhere.”
The hitters involved admit they’re pressing in those prime scoring situations.
“That happens sometimes, especially when the guy in front of you has a rough at-bat. You just sometimes go up there and try to do it all by yourself,” said Castro, who is 0-for-8 with the bases loaded. “That’s when we try to do a little too much. But if we can just continue as a group to have good at-bats, I think we’re going to be better.”
Even so, a 3-0 lead in the fourth felt good for a team that has struggled to take leads like that in recent weeks. Except what followed was a train wreck of a half-inning, a 35-minute bottom of the fourth that saw the Phillies score seven runs on three singles, four walks, an error, a fielder’s choice and a strikeout/wild pitch.
The play-by-play isn’t worth retelling in full. Just know that only one ball the Phillies put in play that inning left the bat at more than 90 mph, and that was a groundout. The pitchers who were on the mound were Sam Clay (who retired one of three batters faced), Kyle Finnegan (who retired one of seven batters faced) and Paolo Espino (who retired one of two batters faced to mercifully bring the inning to an end).
“I was getting soft contact. The bounces just didn’t go my way that inning,” Finnegan said. “But the walks are inexcusable. I got 3-2 counts, I got two strikes. I just couldn’t get that third strike, couldn’t get the ball in play with those two guys. And when it was put in play, it was a little bit of tough luck there.”
Indeed, it wasn’t entirely on the pitchers. Jordy Mercer, starting at second base for the slumping Josh Harrison, was charged with an error when he couldn’t catch a popup in shallow right field. Castro fielded a chopper to third with the bases loaded and elected not to throw to the plate or step on third but instead throw late to second, leaving everybody safe.
“When I got that ground ball, I just got a little bit confused,” Castro said. “I know I didn’t have any chance to go to third. And if I throw to first, I think it’s going to be a bang-bang play. After I caught the ball, I just said to myself: ‘Let’s go the short way,’ so I thought I was going to get an out at second. I was asking one of the guys, and I think I’ve got to go there either to first or home.”
But no matter how it happened, it happened. And things only got worse from there.
Espino served up a two-run homer to Brad Miller in the fifth. And even when the Nationals lineup made some noise in the top of the sixth with a three-run rally to trim the deficit to 9-6, Tanner Rainey needed to face only three batters in the bottom of the inning to give the Phillies all three runs back on J.T. Realmuto’s homer to right.
The final indignity of his marathon came with two outs in the top of the eighth, when in the middle of Trea Turner’s at-bat the netting behind the plate collapsed. It took the ballpark crew 20 minutes to jury-rig a rope to the netting to make the field playable again, just so the two teams could finish out the final inning of a train wreck of a ballgame that would’ve represented a new low point for the Nationals even without the late-afternoon shenanigans.
“I’ve never see that happen before,” Martinez said of the netting collapse.
He could’ve been referring to other calamities that have befallen his team through the first two months of this disappointing season.