The Washington Nationals are a team in relative crisis, no longer able to hide behind the “it’s early” mantra, not looking like a team ready to turn it around before it’s too late. Something has to change: After losing three of four to the Phillies and after not scoring a run in two games against Tampa, they are six games out of first place in the National League East, three games out of second, and just barely over .500 at 42-40.
For reference, the Red Sox are tied for first place in the American League East at 27 games over .500. The Nationals would have a 13-game lead in their division with a record like that. Though the Yankees trounced the Red Sox, 11-1, Sunday night, Boston hardly arrives in Washington reeling. Given two beatable teams last week, the Nationals could not steady themselves. Things will not get easier.
No team in the majors has scored more runs than the Red Sox. Only the Yankees have a better team OPS. They enter this week’s series second in the majors in home runs with 120. The Nationals, by comparison, have hit 93.
Their dynamic young outfielder, Mookie Betts, leads the majors with a .339 average. J.D. Martinez is a sudden triple crown threat with a league-leading 25 homers and a .324 average. Betts and Martinez are first and third in the majors in OPS, respectively. The highest-ranked National, Anthony Rendon, is 19th.
The Red Sox have pitched well enough this season, too. Their 3.83 rotation ERA is two-tenths of a run behind the Nationals’, which grew last month. Their bullpen, which features Craig Kimbrel at the end of it all, has the third-best bullpen ERA in the American League, 3.17. They have been tested in grueling battles with the Yankees and Astros, and they have won them. This team will not slide into a series loss easily, particularly to a team struggling as completely as the Nationals.
WHERE IS THE OFFENSE?
Over and over, the Nationals seem to break out as they did Friday night in a seven-home run battering of the Phillies. Then, they lost two games by one run, having gotten the tying run on base multiple times in each of them, only to squander their own rallies in a variety of ways.
No one in the Nationals’ clubhouse has ever panicked. It’s not the veterans’ style, though perhaps it will become so. They continue to lose close games over their inability to get the big hit when they need it. They have the ninth-lowest average in the majors with runners in scoring position and two outs, which isn’t always the best measure of a team’s ability to score runs, but does show that they are finding those big hits far less often than more successful teams. They also sit in the lower third of teams when it comes to average with a runner on third and less than two outs, the kind of situation they’ve been scuttling all week. Dave Martinez, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton all mentioned that the Nationals probably need to get something going now, that they have reached the point for urgency. The question remains, will urgency provide the big hit when they need it?
Because their starters are going five or six innings at a time, not six or seven as they were earlier in the season, the Nationals pushed their bullpen into an unsustainable workload on this road trip. They will return home having exhausted almost everyone available to get 7 1/3 innings Sunday and 3 1/3 innings Saturday and four innings Friday . . .
If it is any consolation, the relievers tasked with carrying that load did not allow a run until Justin Miller, in his fourth inning of work in three days, surrendered what felt like an inevitable walk-off homer Sunday. He will not be available for a few days, and he might not be the only one.
They sent Sammy Solis to Syracuse this past weekend, a somewhat surprising move that left them without the man who has made more appearances for them than anyone else. They enter Monday’s game hopeful that Max Scherzer can carry the load for them as he always does, but pitch counts tend to mount against a lineup such as Boston’s. The Nationals have put pressure like this on Scherzer all season, and as the second half begins, they will need to lighten his load somehow, too — despite the fact that he has proven himself capable of handling it, over and over.
Mon.: RHP Rick Porcello vs. RHP Max Scherzer
Tues.: LHP Brian Johnson vs. RHP Tanner Roark
Weds.: LHP Eduardo Rodriguez vs. RHP Erick Fedde