If the Nationals were hoping the start of a long homestead would present an opportunity to bolster any optimism still out there for a late-season surge, they sure did little Friday night to back up the sentiment.
Slogging their way through an ugly ballgame against an uninspired opponent, the Nationals were clobbered 10-3 by the Brewers, a loss that dropped them back under the .500 mark for the season and left many in the crowd of 29,916 booing a club universally expected to win its division five months ago.
The Nationals may yet realize those expectations, but with each passing day they’re digging themselves into a deeper and deeper hole, leaving themselves with virtually no margin for error. Friday night’s blowout loss, combined with the Mets’ 14-9 win at Colorado, leaves them a season-high 5 games back in the NL East with 41 to play.
When, exactly, does this team expect to make its long-awaited run?
“I think we have an opportunity to do that at home this week,” right fielder Bryce Harper said. “Just a tough outing tonight. Sometimes baseball plays that way. We’ve just got to come in tomorrow with a good attitude and do what we can and just kind of ride it out until we get going for a couple more games.”
The Nationals (and their fans) have been waiting for the tide to turn, but every time it appears they’re headed in the right direction, they slam on the brakes and reverse course.
They won two straight at Coors Field to begin the week, offering some signs of life, with a chance to reduce their deficit in the division to 3 games with another win Thursday. Then then dropped that series finale to the Rockies, took a red-eye flight that got them back in D.C. at 6 a.m. Friday and proceeded to sleepwalk their way through this loss to Milwaukee.
They gave up 10 runs. They were charged with three errors (though one was later changed to a base hit). They let a run score on catcher’s interference. They misplayed other balls into extra-base hits.
“It’s important for us to be competitive in all aspects,” manager Matt Williams said. “Tonight, it wasn’t that way. I’ll preach it again. We think this way: Tonight’s over, we have to get them tomorrow. Certainly you want to be out there playing clean and getting the outs we should get and not giving them extras. You pay for it eventually.”
The Nationals have been paying for it for quite some time. They’re now 6-15 since July 31, the opener of what would become a 3-game sweep at the hands of the Mets at Citi Field. In that time, they’ve seen a 3-game lead morph into a 5-game deficit.
“Getting on a run for us is just a matter of getting a couple of balls to fall our way, whether it means bleeders or great plays on defense,” said Doug Fister, who surrendered four runs in relief of Gio Gonzalez during Friday’s loss. “We need some momentum, something just to keep us going. Guys are playing hard, they’re putting together good at-bats. Pitchers are grinding it out. We just haven’t had it go our way consistently yet. All it takes is one day of some good stuff followed by the next one. We’ve just gotta start that tomorrow.”
Perhaps they will. Perhaps the Nationals will beat Brewers rookie Taylor Jungmann (owner of a 2.23 ERA) on Saturday. And perhaps they’ll get a win out of Jordan Zimmermann on Sunday, giving them a series victory and giving everyone reason to resume hope of a sustained, positive run.
But they haven’t exactly seized any opportunity for weeks now. And one of these days, they may run out of time to do it.