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Learning to win: The clear job ahead for the Washington Nationals

They come up just short... again.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Washington Nationals
Juan Soto was 0-for-3 with a strikeout and a sacrifice fly, but the Natiionals again underperfomed with runners in scoring position, and closer Tanner Rainey allowed five runs in the ninth.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

For all the drama of a postseason atmosphere and sellout crowds at Nationals Park for this final series with the Boston Red Sox, the Washington Nationals’ biggest flaw has been on brazen display.

This team needs to learn to win.

“I’ve already went around and told them, ‘Hey, you need to come to Spring Training physically ready to play a game like it was April 1st and we’re at Opening Day, because we got to hone in on our baseball skills from Day 1,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters before the Nationals proved for the 95th time this year that they know how to lose.

Saturday’s 5-3 loss to the Red Sox, like most others, came via the formula that they’ve shown all season.

The Nats underperfomed with runners in scoring position, especially with the bases loaded, and their bullpen could not come up with a shutdown inning when needed.

Even worse, the Nationals have kept up these losing habits most of the season, even with a huge amount of roster turnover. Whether it was a veteran-laden team pushing for one last division title, or youngsters looking for experience and chemistry, the Nats lose a lot of ballgames the way they lost Saturday night,

“I told these guys as we have meetings with them,” Martinez said, “we’ve got to get back to winning games, and finishing out games, and being on top. I love winning, and I tell them all the time I’m not crazy about losing, as a matter of fact, I don’t like it. They know that.

“After the games, I sit in my office, and they know that I wear it, and I wear it for all of them, but we’ve got to get better.”

The Nats could not do anything against Red Sox’ starter Tanner Houck, who was perfect for five innings, striking out eight.

The Sox pulled Houck with a 1-0 lead after five, while the Nats’ Josiah Gray allowed three hits, including a solo homer to Rafael Devers over six innings. Gerardo Parra got the Nats’ first hit against Boston’s Garrett Richards when he pinch hit for Gray in the sixth.

In the seventh, against Ryan Brasier, the Nats loaded the bases with two out when Josh Bell singled, Kiebert Ruiz walked, and Andrew Stevenson singled.

But Jordy Mercer not only continued the season-long trend of striking out with the bases loaded, he got tossed for arguing, forcing the Nats to bring Lane Thomas in from center field to play second base. Luis García was unavailable because of a rib cage injury.

“I wish I could have ran out there in that moment and I really wanted to, I just couldn’t,” said Martinez afterward, noting his immobility after an ankle surgery. “Bogie [bench coach Tim Bogar] tried to get out there, and obviously [Mercer] got thrown out. I don’t know what he said or what happened to get Phil Cuzzi that riled him up to throw him out, but he’s got to understand that we’re short, and we needed him to stay in the game.”

The Nats loaded the bases again in the eighth on walks to Thomas and Alcides Escobar after Ryan Zimmerman’s one-out double, a pop-up that center fielder Hunter Renfroe lost in the lights. Zimmerman dove into second ahead of the throw.

“He plays the game the right way, and it’s a learning lesson for our young guys how hard he plays the game and how good he plays the game,” said Martinez.

Soto finally made something good happen with the bases loaded, launching a long sacrifice fly to the center field warning track to score Zimmerman and tie the game.

Soto said Sox’ lefty Austin Davis was trash talking during the plate appearance.

“I just thought he’s lucky,” said Soto “I mean, I hit it pretty good, just a little bit too high and maybe a little bit up on my barrel. But yeah, I was praying for it to keep going, but it didn’t.”

Josh Bell lined out to short to again curtail a multi-run scoring threat.

Tanner Rainey had bailed the Nats out of a jam in the eighth, striking out Devers with two out and two on, but he could not atone for a leadoff walk to JD Martinez in the ninth.

Rainey struck out Alex Verdugo and Renfroe before Christian Vázquez opened the floodgates with a triple that sent Soto into the fence chasing it to score pinch-runner José Iglesias.

“I tried. I really tried,“ Soto told reporters afterward. “I was thinking to jump, but I stopped because I know I was pretty close at the wall.”

“I really thought he had a shot at catching the ball,” said Martinez.

“I think the ball got behind him at the last minute, you know, just when a right-handed hitter hits the ball it’s always going to go towards the line, and he was pretty close to the wall as well.”

That was the first of four runs in the ninth, for a 5-1 lead going into the bottom of the ninth.

No Nats’ loss in 2021 would be complete without a ninth-inning rally that comes up short.

The rally came courtesy of Stevenson, who hit his fifth homer of the year following a leadoff walk to Ruiz to make it 5-3. Then Zimmerman walked with two out to bring Thomas to the plate as the potential tying run, but he popped out to right to end it.

Martinez ended the day as he began it, talking about learning to shake off losing habits and adopt winning ones.

“At the end of the day, I sit back and just was thinking about it’s the walks.” he said. “If you think about it, we walked six, seven guys in two innings, and regardless that’s going to bite you in the butt. And it did that. You just can’t keep walking guys and expect to get out of it. But we’ve got to get better in that aspect.”