An inexperienced pitching staff is going to make mistakes. Davey Martinez understands and accepts that. What the Nationals manager has a harder time accepting is a pitching staff that is killing itself not by getting hit by more accomplished hitters, but by handing them free bases over and over and over.
It happened during Saturday’s loss in Milwaukee, and it happened in even more mind-numbing fashion during today’s 7-3 loss to the Brewers.
Five Nationals pitchers combined to issue 11 walks (tying the club record for a non-extra-inning game) while also plunking a batter during an interminable rubber game of a series that wasn’t so much won by the Brewers as it was gift-wrapped by the rebuilding visitors.
“It’s hard to win games that way,” Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “The walks that we issued, the hit batsmen that we issued the last couple days, is a little bit alarming. It’ll be a conversation with the group after (Monday’s off-day), and we’ve got to get them straightened out.”
Everyone who took the mound today was a culprit. Fill-in starter Sean Nolin walked three during his four innings. Ryne Harper walked two in one inning of relief. Gabe Klobosits walked three and hit a batter during the sixth inning alone. Jefry Rodriguez walked two, uncorked a wild pitch (and gave up a homer) in the seventh. And Austin Voth, making his first appearance since testing positive for COVID-19 on July 29, walked Hoby Milner, a reliever batting for himself in the eighth inning of a blowout.
Put it all together, and you get a game in which the Nationals staff threw a staggering 190 pitches in total. And that’s in only eight innings, because the home team had no need to bat in the ninth.
“It’s been not just today. It’s been a few days now,” said Martinez, whose pitchers hit four batters during Saturday’s loss. “These guys were doing really well. They were attacking hitters. They need to get back to doing that.”
So it was that a weekend that began in uplifting fashion, with Patrick Corbin turning in his best start in months to secure a three-game winning streak, ended with back-to-back ugly losses in which the club’s pitching depth was again exposed.
The Nationals didn’t have to start Nolin today. Thanks to scheduled off-days around both ends of this series, they had the luxury of sticking with a four-man rotation until next weekend, if they chose to do so. But Martinez wanted to give Erick Fedde extra rest before he takes the mound Tuesday in Miami, so it was Nolin getting the nod this afternoon in Milwaukee.
The lefty got himself into trouble immediately, serving up a leadoff homer to Kolten Wong on his second pitch of the game, then surrendering back-to-back singles, each of them possessing exit velocities of at least 107 mph. But what could’ve been a disastrous bottom of the first was salvaged, thanks to a strikeout and a double-play grounder.
“No one likes the leadoff homer, but I feel like I’m a pitch-to-contact, attack-the-zone pitcher,” he said. “Sometimes it goes that way. ... The defense behind me, we got a double play, and (Carter) Kieboom down the line was awesome being there. It was definitely great to get out of that inning.”
Given new life, Nolin found his way after that. He escaped a jam in the second, got through the third with another zero on the board and opened the fourth with two quick outs.
But that’s when it fell apart. Just needing one more out against the bottom of the lineup to end the inning, Nolin issued back-to-back walks of No. 8 hitter Manny Piña and pinch-hitter Jackie Bradley Jr. And that set the table for Wong, who delivered his second big hit of the day: a two-run triple to right.
His pitch count up to 81, Nolin would be pulled after the fourth, having allowed three runs while putting nine men on base. It was an awfully similar pitching line to his Nationals debut 10 days earlier in New York, when he also was charged with three runs in four innings.
“The last two (starts) were a bit tough: Day games, 10 or so days (in between),” he said. “But I feel like I was able to put in my work throughout the week and a half to prepare myself for today. I felt fresh. I was not happy with the result, but as long as I was able to keep the team in the game, I think that was the biggest part of it.”
Forced to turn to his bullpen early yet again, Martinez held his breath and hoped for the best. He got something far less than that, watching as a parade of relievers made a mess of the rest of the game.
Harper managed to avoid giving up any runs despite issuing a pair of two-out walks in the fifth. Klobosits wasn’t nearly so fortunate, loading the bases in the sixth on a hit-by-pitch and two walks.
“I’ll go back, look at film and see if there’s anything mechanical,” said Klobosits, who threw only 15 of 35 pitches for strikes. “But at the end of the day, it just comes down to attack, attack, attack. Just getting back to that is really all it is.”
He might’ve gotten out of the jam, but Josh Bell (after fielding Christian Yelich’s grounder to first and stepping on the bag for one out) tried to throw home and airmailed the ball to the backstop to allow two runs to score. And with the deficit now growing, Rodriguez only poured more gasoline on the fire in a seventh inning that opened with a walk, a two-run homer by Lorenzo Cain and another walk, followed by a wild pitch.
The Nationals would battle, score a couple runs in the ninth and force Craig Counsell to bring closer Josh Hader into a seemingly comfortable game for the second straight day. But the impact of that rally was lessened by the hole they dug themselves into over the course of the entire afternoon.
“They can’t be afraid of throwing strikes,” Martinez said. “They’ve got to pound the strike zone, I’ve told them that from the get-go.”