Condense this lost season for the Nationals down to one issue, one reason above all else to explain why this organization is where it finds itself today with one week to go until a long winter, and the answer is obvious: Pitching.
It’s all about the pitching. It’s always been about the pitching. And until something is done about the pitching, it’s hard to envision the franchise’s rebuilding efforts taking a significant step forward.
Today’s 9-2 loss to the Reds was merely the latest example, but it was a good example, for multiple reasons. The troubles began, as they so often have this year, when the Nationals’ starter couldn’t make it past the fifth inning. And then they were compounded by a reliever’s meltdown, complete with one swing that produced four runs.
Josh Rogers set the tone with an abbreviated start, giving up three quick runs in the bottom of the fifth after opening his afternoon with four scoreless frames.
“Super disappointing,” Rogers said afterward in a Zoom session with reporters.
And Ryne Harper finished it off with a nightmare of a sixth inning, retiring only two of nine batters faced, the big blow coming in the form of Kyle Farmer’s grand slam on a high, 2-2 curveball with two outs.
“It’s unfortunate,” Harper said. “I wish I could have it back. One pitch will do you.”
Not that anyone watching should’ve been surprised by that big blow. It was the 14th grand slam surrendered by the Nationals this season, and that ties an all-time record previously held by the 1996 Tigers.
Just about everyone of significance on the pitching staff has played a role in matching that record. Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin each gave up two grand slams, including Scherzer’s shocking blast surrendered to Padres reliever Daniel Camarena in July. Ten others have allowed one apiece: Sam Clay, Austin Voth, Joe Ross, Tanner Rainey, Kyle McGowin, Jon Lester, Javy Guerra, Paolo Espino, Erick Fedde and now Harper.
“If I go back and look at them, I could probably tell you that most of those pitches were left up in the zone, either breaking balls up or fastballs up over the plate,” said manager Davey Martinez, who wasn’t in a celebratory mood on his 57th birthday. “We definitely, in situations like that, we’ve just got to try to limit the damage.”
“The trick is, you’ve got to attack it, but you can’t try to pick and be scared to mess up with it,” Harper said. “You’ve got to get ahead, number one, obviously. But when you are ahead, you’ve got to make those important pitches. Throw your best pitch. Throw it where if they do hit it, the damage is minimal. And for most of that at-bat, I did it. And the one I didn’t, we saw what happened.”
Harper’s sixth-inning struggles put the nail in the coffin for today’s loss, but the tools were laid out for him by the latest Nationals starter to struggle to pitch deep into the game.
It’s not really fair to pick on Rogers, because he has been far more than the Nationals ever could have imagined when they signed him to a minor league deal this summer after the Orioles released him from their Triple-A team. In his first four big league starts, the left-hander was 2-0 with a 2.16 ERA, all while displaying the kind of energy and enthusiasm that made him an instant favorite among teammates and fans alike.
Rogers even had that ERA down to 1.93 after opening today’s start with four straight zeros, all as his large contingent of family and friends - he estimated 300 people in total - that made the 104-mile trip from New Albany, Ind., to Cincinnati whooped it up behind the third base dugout.
“It was really a special day for all those people to come up and see me, and special for me to hear (them),” he said. “Getting cheered on the road is awesome. Everybody from New Albany, it’s just humbling and a surreal feeling when you’re on the road like that you’ve got the support like that from the people back home.”
There were, unfortunately, some warning signs throughout Rogers’ outing. The Reds had him on the ropes all along, putting six runners on base through those first four innings and hitting into some very loud outs as well. So by the time their lineup got to face him a third time, the potential for danger loomed.
Sure enough, after being handed a 1-0 lead by his teammates, Rogers opened the fifth allowing a double to Jonathan India, then a homer to Tyler Stephenson, then another homer to Nick Castellanos. And when two more batters reached later in the inning, Martinez had to pull the lefty with his pitch count at 102.
“Anytime we score up a run, the goal is to go out there and put up a zero for the guys to get back into the dugout,” Rogers said. “And I didn’t do that. ... It was a grind all day. I’m really fortunate I didn’t give up more than three.”
It was the 87th time this season a Nationals starter lasted five or fewer innings, and their record in those games is now an abysmal 23-64. When they manage to record just one out in the sixth, they’re 41-28.
“It’s hard to cover 12-15 outs every game (from the bullpen),” Martinez said. “It’s tough. But I give these guys credit. The phone rings down there, they get ready. And they’ve given us everything they’ve had, every day. It’s just been a tough year for those guys. At one point, we were praising how good they were. And they were pitching really well. But they’ve been pitching a lot. I’d say they’ve been pitching a lot.”
As always, it’s about the pitching. Pitching. Pitching. Pitching.