On Friday, though, no creativity was needed to start Bell and Zimmerman, batting fourth and fifth, respectively, against the Baltimore Orioles and starter Jorge López. And the result? Not enough.
Bell did homer in a 6-1 loss at Camden Yards, rocking López’s 1-1 sinker way over the right-center wall. But the rest of his at-bats mirrored the rest of the offense — quiet and ineffective when the Nationals needed them to be anything but.
“I thought we chased a little bit,” said Manager Dave Martinez, sounding like he did when the Nationals struggled through April and May. “López had a high pitch count early in the game, and we were chasing. I looked up at one point, and he had, I think, 27 strikes and 27 balls or something like that. So we just had to get him in the strike zone. We want to be aggressive with guys on base, but we want to be aggressive in the strike zone.”
In the second, after Zimmerman walked and Josh Harrison singled, Gerardo Parra, Tres Barrera and Andrew Stevenson went down in order, stranding two. In the fifth, after Stevenson led off with a double, Alcides Escobar, Trea Turner and Juan Soto each grounded out. And in the seventh, when Parra singled and Stevenson walked to put two on with one out, Escobar went down looking before Turner skied out against left-handed reliever Tanner Scott.
The Nationals (45-51) went 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position. They had just five hits and left seven men on base. By falling to the last-place Orioles (32-64), they also dropped seven back of the New York Mets in the National League East, putting them in dangerous territory of being too far behind to justify buying at the trade deadline. Or perhaps they are already there.
It was only Tuesday that General Manager Mike Rizzo described a “dual path,” saying the Nationals would explore adding or selling, their ultimate plans dictated in their next batch of games. Since, they split a pair with the Miami Marlins before being handled in the series opener in Baltimore.
“I don’t think we feel it for that reason,” Zimmerman said when asked whether there’s pressure to excel ahead of the deadline. “We feel it because this is a critical stretch for us to win games. That stuff is done by the front office, people who make those decisions. None of those decisions are made by us in the room.”
The offense didn’t struggle alone Friday. After retiring the first nine batters he faced, Patrick Corbin had a fourth inning that looked like this: a double for Cedric Mullins, an RBI double for Austin Hays, a strikeout for Trey Mancini, a groundout for Ryan Mountcastle, an RBI single for Ramón Urias, a walk for Pedro Severino and a flyout for Maikel Franco. Corbin entered the frame with 36 total pitches. It took 32 for him to navigate seven batters and get the Nationals in a 2-1 hole. Then in the fifth, Pat Valaika smacked his first of two home runs.
Valaika entered hitting .188 with only two homers in 181 plate appearances. But he golfed Corbin’s below-the-zone slider for a solo shot. Then, in the seventh, he tagged Wander Suero’s down-and-in cutter into the Orioles’ bullpen. Suero relieved Corbin in the sixth after Mancini doubled, Urias ripped a grounder to shortstop and Turner caught it on the run and threw high of home plate, allowing Mancini to slide beneath a leaping Barrera. Corbin’s final line read 5⅓ innings, five hits, five runs (four earned) and one walk with four strikeouts.
The Orioles swung at 20 of his sliders and whiffed eight times. But then they swung at 16 of his fastballs — nine sinkers, seven four-seamers — and connected with each one.
“I thought my stuff played well tonight, and it’s just frustrating when you look up and they have five runs, especially when you feel pretty good,” said Corbin, who has a 5.71 ERA in 19 starts. “I don’t know. It seems like it has been happening like that a lot lately. Just trying to break it.”
Suero began his appearance by throwing a pickoff throw past Bell at first, with Bell charged for the error. Urias motored to third and scored when Severino, a former Nationals catcher, lifted a sacrifice fly to center. But the offense was still trying and failing to make up for the earlier damage. Once the Orioles took a 3-1 lead in the sixth, reliever Paul Fry struck out the side of Bell, Zimmerman and Harrison with 19 pitches. The eighth and ninth were uneventful, too.
Zimmerman, as the designated hitter, finished his night with that second-inning walk and three strikeouts. Bell struck out twice with a groundout and 448-foot homer. Turner, who has struggled in recent games, went 0 for 4, while Soto logged a walk, two groundouts and a flyout to left. It’s the wrong time for Washington to hit poorly, pitch poorly and suffer defensive lapses, not to mention Friday’s news of Stephen Strasburg having another setback in his recovery from nerve irritation in his neck.
But it’s also no surprise that a team with so many injuries — and a team that has underperformed outside a 22-game stretch in June — is prone to tripping when it has to surge.