The answer to that question could also be the answer to the risk of this season eventually falling short of expectations. The Nats have enough trouble with players on the COVID injured list. But when the replacement players are gutting it out and making plays and hanging with the defending world champions, they can’t have veterans make the game-breaking mistakes.
The biggest one on Friday came in the top of the eighth inning with the Dodgers leading 1-0, and former Nats’ reliever Blake Treinen on the mound. The Nationals had Victor Robles at first base and Yadiel Hernández on third, courtesy of Hernández’s leadoff ground-rule double and Robles’s bunt hit. Robles caught Dodgers’ third baseman Justin Turner playing just far enough back to let him beat the throw to first.
Next up was Trea Turner, leading the team in home runs, with Juan Soto and his reputation as a clutch hitter on deck. The Nats were primed for a big inning, or at least a chance to tie the score. Instead, they got nothing.
There are so many ways to score in that situation, but Robles found one way not to score, and that was to be caught stealing second base on the first pitch, a called strike. With no play on, Hernádez stayed at third, and Robles was a dead duck.
Behind in the count in an unfavorable hitting matchup, Turner went on to strike out and complete an 0-for-4 day.
In the span of seven pitches, the Nats had given away two outs and would now need a base hit just to stay alive. Of course, the Dodgers walked Soto, leaving Ryan Zimmerman to face Treinen with two out and two on. He let one sinker go by for a ball, got a piece of another, and thought he could handle the next one. But he grounded weakly into a force at second base, and the Dodgers were out of trouble with the Nats in deep.
“(I)t was completely my mistake that I didn’t think about looking at who was coming up in the lineup,” said Robles.
“He ran on his own. Not a very good play in that situation. We got 2-3-4 up, no outs,” said manager Davey Martinez. “Treinen is pretty quick to home, he should have just stayed put.
“That’s just a young baseball player trying to be overly aggressive, but he’s got to be smarter than that. And that’s something that we’ve got to teach him along the way, especially when he’s leading off and he’s got all those hitters behind him.”
Robles has performed admirably in the leadoff role this season, with a most appropriate .273/.500/.773 slash line. He could have done better from the time he stepped to the plate in that situation, but perhaps bunting was the only way he was going to get on. Getting thrown out as the potential lead run is not excusable.
“I’ll sit with him tomorrow and explain the situation,” said Martinez. “We want him to be aggressive, but we want him to be aggressive smart. And at that particular moment, we’re down 1-0 with some pretty big hitters coming up with no outs, so regardless of what it is — you wait for a passed ball or wild pitch, and then there’s other ways to get on second.
That won’t be a fun conversation for Robles.
But Robles’s mistake wasn’t the only one by a veteran that cost the Nats this game.
Ex-Dodger Luis Avilán, with one perfect inning in the books already this season, was two thirds of the way to another in the Dodgers’ sixth, having struck out Chris Taylor and Corey Seager. But he fell behind 1-0 on a curveball and then he left a changeup over the middle of the plate for Justin Turner.
Few ballplayers are going to miss a fat pitch like that, but the Dodgers’ 36-year-old, 13-year veteran, bearded mountain man rocketed the ball into Dodger Stadium’s left-field pavilion.
It was his third hit of the game, and one of only four Dodgers’ hits in the game.
The base-running blunder and the hanging changeup combined to waste a stellar effort from Nats’ starter Joe Ross, who gave up just two hits and two walks in five shutout innings.
In his first game action in 530 days, Ross struck out the first two batters he faced.
But the Nationals are 1-3 this season not because a bunch of youngsters had to step in when key veterans were sidelined by COVID.
The youngsters and replacements are doing fine. It’s the veterans who are costing them games.
“I mean, I’m watching them, they’re doing everything they can, and we’ve been in every ballgame,” said Martinez. “So once again, I’m proud of the way they’re going about their business, they’re working hard.”
Robles has a lot to learn to become a good leadoff hitter, and there’s no doubt that he’s making the effort.
But the most crucial skill to develop now is decision-making at the plate and on the base paths and learning not to give away outs.
The Nats’ young call-ups and older call-ins are going above and beyond already this season.
However, it’s not too early to wonder if the Nationals and their veteran players are going to regret letting games like this one get away.