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The Nationals, already limping, come out of all-star break by getting flattened by Padres

San Diego's Tommy Pham slides safely into home ahead of the tag by Nationals catcher Rene Rivera, completing a double steal that was part of a three-run Padres first inning. Things went downhill from there for the Nationals. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The Washington Nationals already were facing an assignment fraught with peril coming out of the all-star break: gain ground in the National League East while still battered, physically and mentally, and opening a series against the formidable San Diego Padres.

Then came the announcement hours before first pitch Friday that starting third baseman Starlin Castro was placed on administrative leave by MLB under its domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy, compelling Nationals Manager Dave Martinez to say unequivocally the alleged behavior has no place on the club or, for that matter, anywhere else.

So a historically dreadful 24-8 loss at Nationals Park, which included Washington yielding its most runs since it moved to the District in 2005 and the Padres’ Jake Cronenworth hitting for his first cycle, wasn’t necessarily irrelevant in a larger context. But it did serve as an embarrassing interlude for what figure to be impactful on-field decisions for Martinez, whose options at third base appear limited at best.

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“Today was just a rough day all the way around,” Martinez said after the Nationals permitted 22 hits, five of which were home runs. “It’s one of those days where I’m going to sit back tonight, go home and shake this one off and come back and be ready to play tomorrow. We came back off the break. Things didn’t go our way.”

Jordy Mercer got first crack at third Friday against San Diego after making 11 career appearances there, six of which have come this season with the Nationals’ depth depleted via injury and after the front office has stockpiled pitchers over position players, at least until the most recent draft.

Mercer, 34, was a nonroster invitee to spring training and had been producing at the plate before an injury sent him to the 10-day injured list, from which he was reinstated Friday. In seven starts before straining his right quadriceps, the natural shortstop hit .360 (9 for 25), including his first homer for Washington (42-48).

Martinez also mentioned Alcides Escobar, acquired for cash from the Kansas City Royals on July 3, and Josh Harrison, among players on the active big league roster, as possibilities.

Escobar, 34, has 29 appearances at third in 12 seasons, the vast majority of which have been spent playing shortstop (1,389 appearances). The 29 games at third came in 2018 with Kansas City.

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Escobar started at second Friday and was part of a brutal top of the first inning, underscoring the pitfalls of an infield with players out of position. San Diego (54-40) scored three times, beginning with Manny Machado’s bunt single to bring home Fernando Tatis Jr. from third.

Tatis had stolen second and advanced to third when catcher Rene Rivera, the Nationals’ third option with Yan Gomes and Alex Avila injured, delivered a poor throw to second on a pitchout that sailed into center field.

The Padres also executed a double-steal in the first, with Tommy Pham stealing home for the final run of the inning.

Washington got a three-run homer from Juan Soto in the bottom of the first — he added another home run, his 13th, in the sixth — but unraveled amid the Padres’ seven-run second when just about anything that could have gone haywire did.

Starter Erick Fedde departed after recording just four outs, the last coming on a sacrifice bunt from Padres starter Chris Paddack, and walking three batters to load the bases in the second. Andres Machado replaced Fedde and got one out before Paolo Espino entered and yielded a grand slam to Will Myers (two homers, seven RBI) for a 10-3 lead.

“Gotta be the walks," Fedde said of what was most disheartening about his outing in which he gave up three hits and six runs while walking four. “Starting off both innings with that is not ideal, but I think it just kind of set the tone in the wrong way. Free bases definitely aren’t the way to start the game.”

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It got worse. Nationals starting center fielder Victor Robles departed during the inning with what Martinez later said was dizziness. Gerardo Parra replaced Robles in center field and provided a three-run homer in the sixth.

But even as Martinez sorted through the wreckage of a fifth consecutive loss that included using six relievers from a shorthanded bullpen, it’s what happens at third base, perhaps for the rest of the season, that looms over a franchise six games behind the New York Mets for first place and trending in the wrong direction.

Harrison represents the most ideal option from an experience standpoint given his 279 games at third base in 11 seasons. The glitch in that plan, however, is Harrison, 34, has been playing left field with slugger Kyle Schwarber on the 10-day IL nursing a strained right hamstring Martinez has called “significant.”

Another potential maneuver is calling up Luis García from Class AAA Rochester. The prospect had been on the Nationals’ roster last month when the club placed Castro on the restricted list to attend to a family situation that, according to sources, was unrelated to his current leave.

But Garcia, 21, only recently was reinstated from the seven-day minor league IL after having made nine appearances at second base for Washington this season and none at third. He hit .222 in 18 at-bats without an RBI and struck out four times with the Nationals.

Also in the mix may be Carter Kieboom, another prospect who’s been dealing with an injury (knee strain).

“I told [players] we’re going to have to play some other guys at third base for the time being,” Martinez said in his postgame session with the media. “I know we’ve talked about Carter. He’s working his way back, so we’ll see what that looks like in the future. But I think right now we’ve got some guys that can play third base.”

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