Even at this point of the season, with every injured player and bad loss added up, it was a stunning way to fall, 6-5, to the Philadelphia Phillies. The Nationals (45-54) have dropped five straight games to fall 8½ back of the New York Mets in the National League East. They have suffered back-to-back walk-off defeats with Hand, their closer, in to close. If there were any questions about whether they will sell by Friday’s trade deadline, they evaporated in the noisy air above Citizens Bank Park, the crowd cheering them off the field.
“I’m just making too many mistakes right now,” Hand said. “I’m not executing pitches, stuff like that, and it’s definitely frustrating. I believe in myself, I know I’m better than that, and just need to make some better pitches.”
So what did it really cost? Would a victory have kept the Nationals from trading whatever isn’t nailed to the clubhouse floor? At this time of year, for any team stumbling toward the deadline, one game can swing the public perception of whether a club should buy, sell or hold. But the Nationals already showed what they are while getting swept by the last-place Baltimore Orioles over the weekend. And in theory, when it comes to shipping out players or pushing for a long-shot division title, front offices exist at least one plane above the emotional waves of a single win or loss.
It is possible Max Scherzer, Daniel Hudson, Hand, Josh Harrison and Yan Gomes have new teams by the end of the week. Each of those players is on a one-year deal or at the end of a contract, making them potential rentals for a contender. The Nationals are also receiving a lot of interest in shortstop Trea Turner, according to a person with knowledge of their discussions, but would have to get a no-brainer offer to move a 28-year-old standout with another full year of team control.
Scherzer’s situation is simpler but still complex. Because he is in the final season of a seven-year, $210 million contract, his name has floated through rumors for months. But because he has 10 years of major league service and has spent five with his current team — known as 10-and-5 rights — he has to approve any deal. Three people with knowledge of Scherzer’s thinking say he is more than open to moving. His 10-and-5 rights, though, should allow him to influence the destination if Washington has multiple offers.
“I don’t want these guys to put extra pressure on themselves, especially at this time of year,” Manager Dave Martinez said Monday, before the crippling loss, urging his team to ignore the deadline noise. “Let’s just go have fun. I spoke to a lot of guys yesterday about: ‘Hey, I’ve seen a lot of games in my life. I’ve seen a lot of pennant races. And not by any means are we out of it.’
“I’ve seen teams come from 11 games behind … and wind up winning the division. So keep pushing, because anything can happen.”
Martinez’s preferred brand of optimism is unshakable. He sees it as part of the job description. And on Monday, as his club tried and failed to go 1-0, Joe Ross had set it on the right track.
Ross had missed two starts with right elbow inflammation. In his first start back, he worked five scoreless innings on 72 pitches, with his limit set around 75. The Nationals jumped ahead with four runs on seven hits off Phillies starter Spencer Howard and reliever Brandon Kintzler in the fourth. But the lead was cut once Austin Voth entered for the sixth and was met by Bryce Harper’s single, McCutchen’s double and a three-run homer for Rhys Hoskins.
Voth had then allowed eight earned runs in his past three outings. Sam Clay helped him through the sixth by stranding the tying run on third. Then Martinez asked Kyle Finnegan, Hudson and Hand to turn a quick burst of offense into a streak-snapping win. Finnegan and Hudson did their parts, the offense cooled and, again, Hand faltered in the ninth. The Nationals left 10 men on and, despite loading the bases with one out in the ninth, managed a sole insurance run.
“Finishing games out, I feel like, has kind of been the struggle,” Ross said. “That and the big hit. I feel like we’ve had some situations that we could have capitalized on a little better. But overall, still fighting.”
Hand yielded a leadoff double to Jean Segura, struck out J.T. Realmuto, walked Harper and, fatefully, threw that high sinker to McCutchen. The ball looked gone from the moment it left McCutchen’s bat. And it was immediately fair to wonder, as Hand made for the tunnel, if this was the last time he, Hudson and Finnegan will pitch in a row for Washington, and when the changes will spring.
Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.