If Day 1 of the next era of Nationals baseball offered everyone a glimpse at what could still make the rest of this season fun, Day 2 offered a harsh reminder of how rough the next two months could still be.
During a 6-3 loss to the Cubs, the rebuilding Nats showed little of the youthful energy and talent that was on display during Friday night’s win. This game saw a ragged start from Joe Ross, sloppy defense from Carter Kieboom and Luis García and a general lack of offense against an experienced opposing pitcher.
Put it all together and you had a lackluster loss to close out a frantic and ultimately devastating month of baseball from the 2019 champs, one that will forever be remembered for compelling the front office to make a massive course correction with long-lasting ramifications.
The Nationals wound up going 8-18 in July. It’s the club’s worst month, record-wise, since an 8-19 mark in June 2010, the month Stephen Strasburg made his major league debut and a previously woebegone franchise began to have visions of great things to come.
“August is going to bring some good baseball,” manager Davey Martinez said wistfully in his postgame Zoom session. “We ended the month tough. We’ve just got to stick together, play together and just have some fun.”
The optimism isn’t quite in the same place today as it was back in 2010, even if there are reasons to be optimistic about the direction the organization will now proceed in after failing to make another serious run at a title these last two seasons.
Just as was the case in 2010, the rest of 2021 will be used to evaluate players who could be part of the Nationals’ next winner. There is some fun in that, as was the case Friday night. But there is also some pain in it as well, as was the case tonight.
Start with Ross, already a member of the rotation back when the Nats thought of themselves as contenders to begin the season. It’s been a roller-coaster season for the right-hander, but he’s enjoyed more ups than downs, especially during a 10-start stretch dating back to mid-May that saw him post a 2.54 ERA and 1.024 WHIP.
Ross regressed tonight, allowing five runs (four earned) on seven hits in 4 1/3 innings, done in mostly by a four-run top of the fifth that included two doubles and a two-run homer by Cubs leadoff man Rafael Ortega to straightaway center field.
“I’ve just got to start executing better, I think, in situations where guys are on early, less than two outs,” he said. “Maybe slightly better pitch selection. ... I just have to keep going out there competing. I feel pretty good with where I’m at right now.”
Ross wasn’t helped much by his defense. Juan Soto misread Patrick Wisdom’s line drive right over his head with two outs in the first, playing it into a run-scoring, three-base error. Kieboom was charged with an error when he airmailed a routine throw across the diamond in the third, his fifth misplay over his last 22 innings at third base. Yadiel Hernandez struggled with a couple of balls in left field during the fateful top of the fourth. And at one point, García and Adrián Sanchez came dangerously close to diving into each other trying to snag a hard grounder up the middle.
“We’re definitely going to have a little growing pains,” Martinez said. “But these are plays that need to be made. We’re going to work with them. I know Carter, he’s got to use his legs a little bit more when he’s throwing, especially from third base. We’ve got to get García to come get the ball a little bit better. But we’ll work on it. It’s part of it.”
At the plate, there wasn’t much for the crowd of 31,444 to get excited about. Hernandez drove a first-inning changeup from Kyle Hendricks to the gap in left-center for an RBI double, scoring Soto from first. That’s all the lineup would produce against Hendricks, who cruised through seven innings of one-run ball.
Victor Robles, given a chance to lead off for the first time since early May, went 1-for-4, though he reached base three times, thanks to a walk and an error.
The Nationals gave themselves one last chance to make something happen late, loading the bases with nobody out in the eighth and bringing Tres Barrera to the plate representing the tying run. Alas, just as the previous incarnation did, this version of the lineup was averse to taking full advantage of bases-loaded situations. Kieboom managed to get one run home via a sacrifice fly, but Barrera and Sanchez each grounded out to quash that rally.
“Just stay within myself, stay within my approach,” Barrera said of his mindset when he came to the plate. “I know I want to stay aggressive on the fastball, and I got a couple of pitches out of the zone. I was just trying to get a strike over the plate, and he gave it to me. I just got a little bit big there. That’s going to happen from time to time. Hopefully, I get some of those opportunities again, and come through more often than not.”