Manager Dave Martinez jumped a dugout step, then another, to scream at umpire Nick Mahrley through his mask. Josh Harrison and Yadiel Hernández both leaned over the railing, smacked it with open palms and yelled, too. And Victor Robles was a third of the way to first, leaping into the air, skeptical of a third strike that, on replay, looked well below the zone.
But Mahrley still rang up Robles on Grant Dayton’s 3-2 curve, leaving Ryan Zimmerman in the on-deck circle instead of hitting with the bases loaded. Zimmerman then led off the ninth with a double and was replaced by pinch runner Andrew Stevenson. Stevenson then wheeled to third on Trea Turner’s flyout to right. But Hernández struck out (when just a flyball was needed) before Harrison lined out to right against Will Smith, sealing the defeat. It was on the shoulders of an offense that, through 27 games, is 28th in the major leagues in runs per game.
Those late at-bats accounted for three of the 10 men the Nationals left on base Thursday. Five came in the seventh, eighth and ninth. And because the schedule shows no mercy, their next test is with the Yankees’ stingy pitching staff in New York.
“We hit a lot of balls pretty hard today,” Martinez said. “I think there were over 12 balls that we squared up. Just right at guys. Soto had a great at-bat [in the seventh]. Robles had a great at-bat in the eighth. Unfortunately, it was a bad call. But you can’t do anything about that.”
“We all know what’s at stake and what has happened in the last week or two in those situations,” Harrison added of the bats wilting in high-pressure spots. “Sometimes you got to slow down and just keep it simple. That’s easier said than done.”
Martinez’s Thursday began with a surprise hug from Turner. At first, Martinez figured the shortstop was just in a good mood. Then he asked what was up, and Turner told Martinez he would soon be the longest-tenured manager in the club’s short history. Turner congratulated him. Martinez later promised that he didn’t know the milestone was coming. But when Jon Lester threw the game’s first pitch, Martinez officially passed Manny Acta with 411 games in the Nationals’ dugout.
It’s a small figure that shows more than a decade of instability. For Martinez, though, it should grow across a multiyear extension that began in 2021.
“It’s been a blessing,” he said of a run that began three springs ago. “We’ve done a lot here, and hopefully we’ll win a few more championships, especially one this year.”
Of course, the Nationals (12-15) have an unbending goal of making the playoffs and competing for a title. That has been their aim for 10 years. Yet to even reach that first step, they have to nurse some of their best players to full strength (not to mention find a rhythm with those who are on the field).
Juan Soto isn’t cleared to throw at 100 percent and thus can’t play defense or start until his left shoulder and triceps are totally healed. Stephen Strasburg, on the 10-day injured list with right shoulder inflammation, threw two innings and 35 pitches of a simulated game at Nationals Park on Thursday. Reliever Wander Suero, on the IL with a strained left oblique, threw 22 pitches off the mound and could soon take a rehab stint with the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings.
So the group is still thinner than expected. That just doesn’t excuse the continued inability to convert critical chances.
Lester, the Nationals’ 37-year-old left-hander, allowed the Braves (15-16) little more than a three-run fourth. The offense just couldn’t quite solve Braves starter Drew Smyly, then Luke Jackson, Dayton and Smith in relief. Jackson worked through Soto, Turner and Hernández to strand two in the seventh. Soto’s 2-0 lineout to left, straight at a perfectly shaded Marcell Ozuna, lifted the crowd before it found Ozuna’s glove. Next Turner and Hernández tapped grounders to end the threat.
“It’s a matter now of staying consistent,” Martinez said, choosing to lean on the hard contact that found defenders. “These balls will drop, and we’ll start scoring some runs.”
But in the eighth, once Yan Gomes inched the Nationals closer with an RBI single, Kyle Schwarber swung through three of Dayton’s curveballs for a quick strikeout. Runners stayed glued to first and second. Then Robles was retired on that questionable third strike, which Martinez panned as the glaring mistake of an otherwise good day for Mahrley behind the plate.
It wasn’t the final moment of another tight loss. But it sure helped the Nationals get there.