Yes, all of that can pack into 30 seconds of a six-month season. So it was hard to blame Brad Hand and Tres Barrera, Josh Bell and Carter Kieboom, Trea Turner and Alcides Escobar for lingering on the field — from hoping, even — before umpire Joe West signaled safe; the Baltimore Orioles won, 5-4; and all of those negative thoughts became reality.
In the ninth, the Nationals gave a one-run lead to Hand, their $10.5 million closer, and it evaporated once he plunked Maikel Franco with an 0-2 slider, yielded a single to Ryan McKenna, walked pinch hitter Austin Hays, allowed a score-knotting sacrifice fly to Pat Valaika and yielded a sharp grounder to Ramón Urías. On Urías’s contact, McKenna broke for home and Kieboom darted to the line. His throw was on line, about chest-high to Barrera, but the tag couldn’t beat McKenna’s headfirst slide. That’s what the time-stopping review confirmed.
And when it did, when the Nationals dropped to 45-53, their plan for the trade deadline may have hardened. Hand, coincidentally, is a veteran who would be attractive to contenders. Some others: starter Max Scherzer, reliever Daniel Hudson and utility man Josh Harrison. Four straight defeats, to the Miami Marlins and the Orioles, could lead to them being shipped to new teams.
“This is a tough time of year for players, I can tell you that,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “Everyone is worried about getting traded. Everyone is hearing rumors. We need to focus on staying present. That’s what we need to do. Focus on winning one game at a time and go out there and do your best to win for the Nats.”
There is no way to soften the implications of Sunday. It didn’t help that Joe Ross will come off the injured list to start at the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday; that catcher Yan Gomes, who’s sidelined with a left oblique strain, jogged the bases before the first pitch; that Scherzer, scratched Saturday with triceps soreness, played catch in the late morning and felt fine afterward; or that reliever Tanner Rainey began a rehab assignment with Class AAA Rochester, nudging him a step closer to returning from a stress reaction in his right tibia.
The good bits of injury news couldn’t match what happened in Baltimore this weekend. Not nearly. And even the positives were balanced by Martinez saying Stephen Strasburg will see another specialist Monday for the nerve irritation in his neck. That’s the story of this Nationals season.
They are a mediocre team, at best, with too many injuries and every reason to sell. They are in fourth place in the National League East. They just went 2-4 in series with the Orioles (34-64) and Marlins (43-57), last-place teams that, combined, will spend around $101 million on their rosters in 2021. Washington will pay almost double that in salaries counting toward MLB’s competitive balance tax. The investment shows the expectations that haven’t been met.
“Every loss hurts, but we obviously know where we’re at. We know we need to win ballgames now,” Hand said Sunday after his fourth blown save. “The offense did a good job to come back and put up some runs. So it definitely stings.”
So where does that leave the Nationals?
On a micro level, they have five days to see how they can pad their bottom-ranked farm system. On a macro level, they’re transitioning from one era to the next, a process that will eventually turn on the free agencies of Turner and Juan Soto. Turner is under team control through next year and Soto is until the end of the 2025 season.
But for now, for at least another few days, there are more pressing questions, such as whether the Nationals should deal Scherzer and whether he will exercise his ability to veto any deal. And before tackling those, there was a crippling loss to dissect.
Starter Paolo Espino, who remains in the rotation because of the injuries to Strasburg and Ross, yielded a solo homer to Trey Mancini in the first, to Franco in the second and to McKenna in the fourth. The Nationals loaded the bases in the first, pressing Orioles starter John Means, but they scored only one run on Ryan Zimmerman’s groundout. Means worked a seven-pitch third, a 12-pitch fourth and a four-pitch fifth, cruising until Zimmerman whacked a three-run homer to give the Nationals a 4-3 lead in the sixth. That’s when Martinez asked Kyle Finnegan, Hudson and Hand — his “A bullpen” — for the final 12 outs.
The Nationals failed to add an insurance run when Yadiel Hernandez pinch-hit for catcher René Rivera in the eighth and flied out with the bases loaded. The move was an illustration of the team’s injuries and lack of depth. In this series, often seeing pitchers with bloated ERAs, the Nationals went a brutal 2 for 23 with runners in scoring position.
“In those situations, we got to look for the ball up. We chased a lot of bad breaking balls,” Martinez said of the entire weekend. “We got to get the ball up in the strike zone, stay in the middle of the field and hit the balls that are in the strike zone. We’ve done it before.”
Then Hand couldn’t finish the job. For stretches, he has been every bit the dominant closer who demanded an eight-figure salary in the offseason. For others, he has lapsed repeatedly and been unable to miss bats and sustain command.
Sunday was part of the latter. Sunday unraveled after Hand hit Franco with a pitch that was supposed to induce a chasing swing. Sunday left Hand and his teammates milling in the grass, in the same dirt McKenna tore through to ruin their day, in a jagged clump that was not unlike the way they have played this season — save a three-week stretch of promise in June.
The only direction they could find was the wrong one. And the only logical path for their immediate future was clear.
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