Sunday’s loss to the New York Mets said everything about why the Washington Nationals are in last. Another short outing from a starter. Baserunning miscues. Bad luck on hard hits. All the woes that plague scuffling clubs.
Still, when Washington looks up at the other four teams in the division, there’s no huge gap.
The Mets are just one game up on the Philadelphia Phillies for first in the NL East and two games up on the mediocre 8-11 Nationals. The silver lining to Washington’s rough start? The other teams in the division have been almost as mediocre as the Nationals.
“Like I say every day, we gotta focus on going 1-0 Tuesday,” manager Dave Martinez said. “The effort’s been there. That’s one thing I can say about the boys: they’re playing hard.”
Before Washington could even throw the first pitch of the 2021 campaign, a coronavirus outbreak postponed four games and left the team shorthanded once the season began. Nine players — including both catchers and three other starters in the field — missed time.
That left the Nationals in an early hole, particularly with matchups against the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers to open the year. They lost five in a row before stabilizing against the St. Louis Cardinals, when a slew of the players on the coronavirus protocol list returned to the lineup.
But the bedrock of this team — the starting rotation — hasn’t been up to its usual standard. Stephen Strasburg remains on the 10-day injured list with shoulder inflammation, a move made after he allowed eight runs in 10 innings to begin the season. Erick Fedde, filling in because Jon Lester is still working back from the coronavirus protocol list, has given up 11 runs in 16 1/3 frames.
And Patrick Corbin has surrendered 20 runs in 16 1/3 innings, with another faltering start Sunday. He had seemingly stabilized with a six-inning shutout last Tuesday, but the Mets chased him in the fifth inning after tagging Corbin for seven hits and four runs. That leaves Max Scherzer and Joe Ross as the two most steady arms in the rotation.
“Things aren’t clicking for myself,” Corbin said. “But it’s good to see some of those other guys pitching well. I’ve just got to turn it around and see what I’m able to do.”
Faced with early deficits in several contests, the lineup has trouble climbing out of those holes. And that task is only harder with Juan Soto on the 10-day injured list with a shoulder strain.
Soto’s absence came into play Sunday as well, with the Nationals going 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position, leading to the team’s fifth shutout in 19 games. But Martinez said the at-bats have improved, even if the results aren’t there. The Nationals hit nine balls with an exit velocity above 100 miles per hour, although just three of those resulted in hits — and Victor Robles was thrown out on one trying to stretch his double into a triple.
“It definitely is frustrating,” Kyle Schwarber said. “But it’s definitely — it’s part of the game. And you know what? If we keep doing that, keep taking those hard-hit baseballs, I think those will start landing.”
If those hits do start landing, Washington isn’t far out of the NL East conversation. Two games back in a tightly packed division, the Nationals’ bumpy start hasn’t derailed their chances — especially just three weeks into the season.
The Mets and Phillies are leading the way in the division, but they’re hovering around .500 with bullpen issues mixed in (they entered Sunday with bullpen ERAs of 4.50 and 4.83, respectively.)
The Braves haven’t gotten off to a solid start, with starting pitchers Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Drew Smyly all dealing with injuries of late. Those absences have helped factor into a 4.59 team ERA. The Miami Marlins, of all teams, were the lone squad in the grouping that entered Sunday’s games with a positive run differential (plus two).
With the division leader sitting at one game above .500 — no other division in baseball has started so poorly — a team with a .421-win percentage doesn’t need to sweat. And the Nationals know a thing or two about slow starts, after all.
“We’re in a really good spot,” Schwarber said. “Obviously, we’re still a little banged up here. Missing Soto and [Lester’s] still working his way up, and I felt like guys are doing a really good job here stepping up.”
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