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This time, closer Sean Doolittle costs the Nationals a game

This time, closer Sean Doolittle costs the Nationals a game

NEW YORK -- The Washington Nationals lost to the New York Mets, 6-1, Wednesday to drop their record to 19-30. Here are five observations from the game...

1.  What to say when the only person to trust can’t deliver?

That’s the status for these Washington Nationals, now 11 games under .500 after Sean Doolittle's worst outing since arriving in Washington, sliding further and further away, unable to stumble into wins and only capable of hunting down ways to lose.

A night after curious bullpen usage which delivered yet another wrenching loss, and was followed Wednesday afternoon by a pep-talk focused team meeting, manager Davey Martinez dispatched his knee-quaking posse of relievers in superior fashion.

Joe Ross opened the seventh with an out. Matt Grace followed with two. Six outs to go in a 1-0 game for the league’s worst bullpen.

Kyle Barraclough started the eighth. He struck out J.D. Davis. Adeiny Hechavarria doubled, though the ball should have been caught by Juan Soto. Pete Alonso grounded out. Todd Frazier came to the plate and options arrived. A mound visit was followed by a four-pitch walk to Frazier. Doolittle entered the game to face light-hitting veteran Carlos Gomez. Stomach-churning chaos followed.

Doolittle hit Gomez with his first pitch -- his first beaned batter of the year and first since May 29, 2018. Juan Lagares doubled two pitches later to clear the bases. Wilson Ramos was intentionally walked. Pinch-hitter Rajai Davis hit a three-run homer two pitches into his at-bat.

That was the end for Doolittle, who walked off the mound with a stunned look. The one reliable piece in the league’s worst bullpen had as disastrous a night as possible, flushing Max Scherzer’s start, throwing aside rare quality work from other relievers, sending the Nationals to their fourth consecutive loss in this can’t-get-right season.

What followed was a stupefied clubhouse beginning to process just how dire the situation is on May 22.

Adam Eaton wondered where answers are and said they need to come now.

“We need to do something different sooner rather than later,” Eaton said. “We've talked about this for weeks now. Just haven't been playing good baseball.”

Martinez said he was “shocked” by Doolittle’s off-kilter outing.

“I tell them all the time: This thing will turn around,” Martinez said. “It’s going to turn around. But we have to believe that it will. We have to will it. It’s time that we just believe that we’re good enough to play here, cause we are. And we’ve got to make it happen. We’ve got to make things happen. And stay strong. Stay together. Stay strong. Pull for your teammates. And this thing will turn around.”

Doolittle had a hard time wrapping his head around his rare 12-pitch crumbling.

“I don't know, it's tough and it's a tough spot to come in and the context of how our season's going it hurts you even more,” Doolittle said. “To have Max pitch so well tonight and the guys grind it out....shoot I don't know. I'm really frustrated. I'm disgusted with myself and I let the team down. And it hurts.”

Scherzer was stern in his comments about a spiraling season.

“When you face adversity, this is when you reveal yourself,” Scherzer said. “Whether you have the mental fortitude to come back and you can block out all the negativity that's probably going to surround us right now. You've got to come forward to the game with that positive attitude of knowing what you can control and that you have the right mindset that you're going to go out there and compete and compete at 100 percent. You have to think of all the little things you can do.”

There were those two words again: “little things.” They have conspired against the Nationals this year, undermining an-almost $200 million payroll, increasingly putting the manager’s future in jeopardy and ratcheting up calls for sweeping change. There’s been nothing little about them, and nothing the Nationals have figured out on the field or off to stop them from snuffing out the year before the season is even close to half done.

2. Scherzer needed 109 pitches to make it through six innings. The most important of those was his final one. The 11-pitch sixth gave the Nationals three fewer outs to pawn off on the bullpen. Scherzer opened the inning at 98 pitches before briskly working through Todd Frazier, Carlos Gomez and Juan Lagares.

He allowed four hits, struck out nine and walked two. The night drove Scherzer’s ERA down to 3.41. It all mattered little in the end.

“You just take it inning by inning, try to execute pitches,” Scherzer said. “I thought tonight I had a good inning out of the windup, had a good rocker step, and there were some pitches that I threw tonight that I executed well because I was nice and tall throughout my delivery. It kind of let me be able to pick up some consistency kind of early in the game and late in the game. When my delivery is right, and my slot is in the right spot, that’s when I execute all my pitches. So I felt like I was in better position tonight overall than I have been in the past.”

Why was Scherzer back to the mound after 98 pitches in five innings? Because of losses six weeks ago, three weeks ago, last week and this week. A team 10 games under .500 has to squeeze everything it can out of its ace on May 22. Time for a margin of error has eroded. What happened back then (losing series to Miami, for instance) piles up to have a grand influence on later.

3. Grace has been used as a matchup left-hander recently. He’s found that life more appealing.

Grace matched up with Cubs left-hander Anthony Rizzo and recorded an out Sunday. He faced Robinson Cano on Tuesday to pick up a ground out. Wednesday, Grace was brought in to face left-handed pinch-hitter Dominic Smith. Smith grounded out to first. Grace remained in to face Amed Rosario and recorded another ground ball out.

The Nationals are trying to put Grace in spots to get his feet back on the ground after a night as the punching bag at the end of a blowout loss against the Chicago Cubs last Friday (and a down season overall). So far, this role has been better.

4. Remember the extended minor-league assignments for after players were hurt? That’s gone. And the results are not great.

Matt Adams was activated Wednesday. Adrian Sanchez was sent to Double-A Harrisburg to make room on the 25-man roster.

Adams did all his rehabilitation work with the major-league team. He took batting practice on the field and in the batting cages before that. He also took ground balls and infield practice. What he didn’t do was go on a minor-league assignment despite not playing since May 3. The Nationals judged him ready to play because his swing looked in place against a pitching machine.

Wednesday, he made a crucial error in the first inning. Robinson Cano rolled a small ground ball to first, Adams fielded, pivoted and threw toward second base, where the runner on first was heading. The ball never came close to the bag. It went to the outfield instead, which presented the Mets with runners on second and third and one out instead of a runner on first and one out (or a chance at a longshot double play). It, most importantly, cost Scherzer more pitches.

Scherzer pitched his way out of it as he often has this season. He came into the game leading the league in FIP (fielding-independent pitching).

Trea Turner played just two games for Triple-A Potomac after missing seven weeks. Asked how many games he would have preferred to play there, Turner said one. He made two wayward throws his first game back with the Nationals.

So, instantly putting these guys back on the field -- which is every player’s preference and a spot the Nationals’ record has leveraged them into -- is not ideal.

5.  Kyle McGowin will start Friday. His visit to the rotation is expected to be temporary.

McGowin will pitch in Jeremy Hellickson’s spot. He was up to give length in the bullpen. Like Erick Fedde, he’ll be drawn away from the relievers to fill a rotation spot.

McGowin is a sinker-ball pitcher. He made one start at the end of last season. He also is currently suspended by the Pacific Coast League after a substance was found in his glove following an inspection by umpires during his last outing.

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In The Loop: Trea Turner's gender reveal, Lightning celebrate 5 OT win

In The Loop: Trea Turner's gender reveal, Lightning celebrate 5 OT win

First up in our look around the sports world, exciting news coming from Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner and his wife, Kristen. Just a few days ago the two announced they were expecting and now they have revealed it is a little boy. A huge congrats to the Turner family, looking forward to seeing this little one in the stands at Nats Park cheering on his pops!

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Little man!! 👶🏼

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Next up, hope you didn’t finish all your coffee staying up to watch the Blue Jackets vs. Lightning Game 1 as it went to 5 overtimes. The game itself lasted over six hours, with 150 minutes (and 27 seconds) played. Here was the reaction in the locker room after Tampa got the win. If that was just Game 1, can't imagine what the rest of the series will be like. Bring on playoff hockey in August!

Lastly, it’s Dame time. Portland Trailblazers superstar Damian Lilliard went OFF yesterday putting up 61 points to get a crucial win over the Dallas Mavericks. Yup, you read that right, he really just did that.

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Bullpen fluctuations from Sean Doolittle and others again create hole for Nationals

Bullpen fluctuations from Sean Doolittle and others again create hole for Nationals

Trevor Rosenthal entered a tie game in the ninth inning Tuesday. That sentence is likely to make Nationals fans shiver and wonder why a cold, prickly feeling just shot up their spine.

Rosenthal was working the spot as the Kansas City Royals closer. He has three saves, 10 strikeouts in eight innings, a 1.13 ERA and 0.625 WHIP. He’s thrown strikes 71 percent of the time this season after throwing baseballs to the backstop last year.

Out in San Francisco, another Trevor is working well as the Giants closer. Trevor Gott has a league-leading four saves and a 1.50 ERA. His WHIP is 1.000, though his numbers are more hollow than Rosenthal’s. Gott is striking out far fewer batters and dealing with runners more often.

Both were in Washington previously. Neither should be here now, especially Rosenthal, who was among the largest miscalculations in Major League Baseball in 2019. His season went so poorly, Davey Martinez was asked if Rosenthal had the yips. The Nationals eventually released the person who was supposed to be their setup man to start 2019. But, the good starts by the two Trevors this season define two truths: relievers are fickle, and that fickleness always seems to mess with the Nationals.

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Sean Doolittle’s appearance Monday did little to suggest he is coming out of his funk this year. He faced four batters in a blowout against the New York Mets. All four made hard contact. One hit a home run. A running catch in left field by Josh Harrison -- a ball Juan Soto likely does not get to -- saved him from further problems. Doolittle has significant velocity and action problems with his pitches. In March, he was expected to be the closer. He quickly slid back to setup man, to left-handed matchup pitcher, to now being dispatched with crossed fingers in low-leverage situations.

Setup man Will Harris is yet to throw a pitch in a regular-season game because of a groin injury. Though, he’s expected back Wednesday.

Their failures and lack of availability has forced adjustments. Javy Guerra has moved into the later innings. He has numbers similar to Rosenthal a year after being cut by Toronto and the Nationals. Guerra was used for mop-up duty last season. He’s an affable personality, can pitch often, throws strikes with a fair amount of regularity. This year, his outcomes -- and a need for someone to perform -- have sent him into the seventh inning.

Tanner Rainey has developed into the Nationals best reliever. Though he’s not the closer, he’s often used against the heftiest part of the opposing team’s lineup. Multiple players -- from Max Scherzer to Trea Turner -- recently said Rainey has some of the best stuff in the league. Command is the only question for him, as it is for so many hard throwers quickly elevated to the major leagues.

Daniel Hudson remains the closer. The question is if his arm holds up throughout the season following such heavy usage last season before odd preparation in 2020.

All of the chaos in the Nationals’ bullpen -- an annual tradition -- leads to another question: will they bother to make a trade before the Aug. 31 deadline?

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The deadline may show how much teams truly value winning in a 60-game season. Do they care enough to move prospects, even low-level ones, for short-term help? Is anything worth a month of work from a reliever, plus the postseason? If so, what would it be?

The Nationals could use the help because another year of unpredictability has produced a need. They acquired Doolittle to solve a problem in the past. They traded for Hudson to solve a problem last season. Maybe they can trade for Rosenthal to shore things up this year.

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