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After more uninspired baseball, Washington Nationals show signs of life in doubleheader split

There were more injuries, bad starting pitching, questionable defense, and a bullpen meltdown, but the Washington nationals finally got a big hit and made it stand up to break a 7-game skid.

MLB: Game Two-Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves
The Washington Nationals’ outfield was finally in a mood to celebrate after beating Atlanta 10-9 to break a seven-game skid.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

So many frustrations of the 2020 major league season could be summed up in the Washington Nationals’ doubleheader split with the the Atlanta Braves.

Unexpected injury? Check.

Ineffective starting pitching? Check.

Poor defense? Check.

Lack of roster depth exposed? Check.

Unexpected bullpen meltdown? Check.

We’ve seen this before, and it’s not fun.

In both games of the doubleheader, the starting pitchers could not go deep, and the Nats played uninspired, listless baseball for the first game, losing 7-1, and the first three innings of the second before snapping to life and pulling put a 10-9 victory.

Even with a little inspiration from the second game comeback, it’s time to face the reality that this team will likely not make MLB’s expanded postseason and may finish with one of the worst records in the game, if not the worst.

No, really. Look at the standings.

The Nats are just one game ahead of last-place Pittsburgh, who never attempted to field a competitive team this season, and one game behind Arizona, who signaled their intent to wait until next year at the trade deadline.

The Nats’ record is worse than the last-place team over in the American League, the Boston Red Sox.

You might have checked your superstitions and lucky charms just a few minutes after the Nats announced the batting order for Game 1, when they tweeted that Juan Soto was a late scratch due to elbow soreness. A day after going 2-for-3 with clutch RBI single in an extra-inning loss, Soto was suddenly lost for what turned out to be both games, and possibly more.

“Honestly, he said he just woke up saying his elbow was bothering him today,” manager Davey Martinez said after the second game.

“And he said it was really stiff, so he got an MRI on his whole elbow, and they deemed that everything came back negative, and they said he just probably needs some days off.”

Soto was treated with ice and will be day to day, Martinez said

And so a Nats’ lineup with a big hole went out behind Austin Voth, who has yet to pitch more than five innings this season, and whose innings per start have been trending in the wrong direction. While Voth never had a lead to work with, he wasted little time in giving up a Ronald Acuña, Jr.’s first homer of the game, and never gained any momentum from there. He had a 1-2-3 inning in the second but gave up at least one homer in every other inning until he was lifted with one out on the fifth.

That the Nats were never in the game made it even more frustrating to see continued uninspired and error-laden defense, especially in the outfield. Michael A. Taylor, playing right field, was charged with his first error of the season, non-chalanting and bobbling a waist high hop on a sixth-inning base hit down the line by Dansby Swanson. Runners on second and third scored on the play to secure the rout.

Josh Harrison played left field in place of Soto and went 1-for-2 in the first game, but in his first at-bat of the nightcap, he was hit on the left wrist and left the game in obvious pain after Brock Holt drove him in his first hit with Washington to give the Nats a 2-1 lead in the second inning. Holt took Harrison’s place in left field and third base was manned by Wilmer Difo, who collected his second hit of the season and drove in a run.

Martinez said afterward that Harrison has a wrist contusion and is also day to day.

The Nats’ second-game starter Wil Crowe was not up to the task of holding a lead of any size. He gave up one-run leads in the first and second, and after the Nats had gotten him five runs in the third to take a 7-3 lead, he proceeded to give up a leadoff double to Freddie Freeman and then walk the bases loaded with one out to finish his night.

Kyle Finnegan cam in and worked his magic by inducing a 1-0 ground ball from Nick Markakis for a double play with the help of a diving stop by Trea Turner.

“Finnegan comes in and I talked to him on the mound and I said, ‘I really don’t care about the guy on third base, just get an out. Throw your ground ball, let’s focus on getting an out and we’ll go from there,” said Martinez.

“He’s been really good, and one thing I know, he’s not afraid, he’ll attack the strike zone and he gives me everything he’s got. What a big night for him, he’s been throwing a lot, so I wanted to keep him under 15 pitches, I thought he did really well.”

Finnegan had nothing left the next inning though, allowing a single and another runner on Luis García’s fourth fielding error of the season. Martinez turned the ball over to Tanner Rainey, who came into the game with a 1.11 ERA and had given up one home run all season.

But Rainey was not sharp, and after striking put Acuña, issued a seven-pitch walk to Dansby Swanson, throwing nothing but sliders. His first two pitches to Freddie Freeman were fastballs, and Freeman didn’t miss the second one, clouting it over the center field fence for his first career grand slam.

“After throwing three in a row, for me you’ve got to mix it up,“ Martinez said of Rainey’s pitch selection to Swanson.

“A hitter sees those pitches three times in a row he knows how to lay off them. But he’s been — up till today, he’s been really, really good. He’ll bounce back and hopefully he’ll be available tomorrow.”

But instead of submitting to the sense of impending doom that gripped their last seven losses, the Nats stopped the damage with scoreless innings from Wander Suero and Will Harris.

Turner finally found his hitting stroke for the game with two out in the sixth, homering off Will Smith to put the Nats back ahead.

“Just got a good pitch in the zone and didn’t miss it,” Turner said. “And happy to give us a chance to win because we’ve been scuffling pretty bad and we ended up holding on and hopefully we can get the ball rolling.”

“It was a big lift for us, because we battled to get where we were, we gave a lead back, tie, and [Turner] comes up there and hits a home run, so to me that was huge,” said Martinez.

Then in the seventh, Difo made it 9-7 on a sacrifice fly to score Kurt Suzuki, who led off with a walk. After Luis Garcia walked, Michael A. Taylor bunted for a base hit and scored Eric Thames, who had doubled, to make it 10-7.

The Nats almost had a second bullpen meltdown in the ninth after Daniel Hudson allowed a leadoff walk to Marcell Ozuna, a two-run homer to Travis D’arnaud to make it 10-9, and then watched Nick Markakis take second on a throwing error by Turner. With the tie run in scoring position, Hudson got the next three batters for the save, and the seven-game losing streak was finally over.

Whether it’s too late for a turning point in this season remains to be seen. But with several players already lost to injury and weaknesses that can still cost them games, the Nats are clearly in a worse position than they were in last year when they rallied to make the postseason.

If the Nats have something to play for, they need to show it pretty quickly. A .351 winning percentage won’t make the postseason, even in the crazy 2020 season.