The Nationals’ resurgent June was built upon multiple developments, but high on the list was the resurgence of their rotation into an elite unit for the first time all season. Now as the calendar has shifted to July, they’re finding out just how important that development was.
It’s hard to win games when your starter doesn’t provide both quality and length. And the Nats haven’t been getting either over the last week. They got away with Jon Lester’s poor start Monday night in San Diego, but they could not get away with Erick Fedde’s outing tonight during a 7-4 loss to the Padres.
Returning from a 13-day stint on the injured list, Fedde looked rusty. He allowed six runs over 4 1/3 innings, needed 93 pitches just to reach that juncture and put added strain on his team’s taxed and depleted bullpen while forcing its lineup to put up big numbers for the second straight night.
That didn’t happen, so the Nationals were left to suffer their fifth loss in six days, falling back to two games under .500 as a desperately needed All-Star break inches closer at the end of the week.
In four of those six games, the Nats’ starter has failed to reach the sixth inning. And the growing strain of such abbreviated outings is becoming obvious.
“We’ve got to get them to go a little bit deeper,” manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “We’ve got to get to Sunday, (then) we’ve got some days for the All-Star break. But we’ve got to have one or two outings where we can get six or seven innings to give our bullpen a break.”
The decision to activate Fedde came as a surprise to those who assumed he would need to face live hitters before coming off the 10-day IL. But it had been less than two weeks since he started against the Phillies, and with his oblique healed the Nationals felt it was worth putting him right back on the mound tonight against a tough Padres lineup.
“I felt like I got back pretty quickly,” he said. “And honestly, the bullpen (throwing session) I had leading up to it was probably the best I’ve had all year. So I felt good, and I felt confident enough that I would go out there and still be pretty sharp.”
Fedde navigated his way through his first three innings without allowing a run, but truth be told there was a lot of loud contact, and it took several defensive gems behind him to make his early success possible. And as his pitch count rose, the loud contact began to evade his fielders.
One of the hardest-hit balls came from Wil Myers, who hammered a 2-1 sinker from Fedde to right-center for a three-run homer in the fourth. That inning ended with the starter’s pitch count at 73, but he was given a chance to return to the mound for the fifth.
It felt like Fedde was playing with fire, but given the recent short starts from Lester and Paolo Espino (the latter due to a rain delay) Martinez didn’t feel like he could turn to his bullpen that soon. Fedde, though, would face only four batters in the fifth. And worse, he would retire only one of them.
“We tried to get him back out there for the fifth inning. Our bullpen was short,” the manager said. “That last inning, he just got the ball up, made a couple mistakes. But overall, I thought he pitched really well.”
An RBI single by Manny Machado was the final straw, forcing Martinez to summon Sam Clay for the fourth time in five days. The rookie left-hander would promptly let both runners he inherited score, leaving Fedde to be charged with six earned runs in 4 1/3 innings.
“On all of them, I think I fell behind (in the count),” Fedde said of the fateful fifth. “I think that was probably the biggest issue. At that point, you’ve still got to be very aggressive and mixing pitches. And I had the one walk there that put guys on base. I wish I could’ve been a little more aggressive and stayed on top of them, kept pressuring.”
The game remained within reach, though, thanks to a couple of big blasts from Nationals hitters, making amends for an earlier missed opportunity.
The top of the second saw Starlin Castro single and Yan Gomes rip a double down the left field line in succession. With one out and Josh Harrison due up, it may not have been worth the risk to wave Castro around third. But Bob Henley waved him around nonetheless, and Castro was easily thrown out on a relay from Jurickson Profar to Fernando Tatis Jr. to Victor Caratini. That made Harrison’s subsequent fly out to the warning track in left all the more frustrating, because it would’ve scored Castro from third with no effort at all.
“They had a heck of a relay, that particular time,” Martinez said. “I watched, and I thought it was going to be semi-close. But they made two perfect throws to get Starlin.”
Wouldn’t you know the same scenario played out three innings later, with Castro singling and Gomes doubling down the left field line. This time, Henley put up the stop sign. And this time, Harrison’s drive didn’t fall at the warning track. It cleared the fence in dead center field for a three-run, game-tying homer.
“It felt good to get one that went over the fence,” said Harrison, who hadn’t homered since May 22. “I just knew that it was over his head. Going over the fence is just icing on the cake.”
By the time they came up to bat again, the Nationals trailed by three runs again. They would get one of the runs back when Juan Soto took lefty Ryan Weathers deep to left-center for his 10th homer of the season (ninth on the road). But they would squander the pair of runners they put on base in each of the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, failing to drive in any more runs.
And by night’s end, they were left to wonder what might’ve been had they taken advantage of those opportunities.
“We saw some pitches today, we walked,” Martinez said. “We just couldn’t capitalize.”