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Nats are trying Victor Robles back in leadoff spot. In loss to Phillies, results are mixed.

Nationals center fielder Victor Robles, restored to the leadoff spot, homered off the Phillies' Chase Anderson in the first inning. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Here was a slugfest that, as currently constructed, the Washington Nationals could not win. Their three solo shots were upped by a pair of two-run homers for the Philadelphia Phillies, plus a four-run rally in the third. The result Wednesday was a 9-5 loss for the Nationals, their third in a row, showing their thinned lineup, rotation and bullpen, all at once.

Within that, though, was a bit more taking stock for the future, a theme for the season’s final two months. So while Paolo Espino had his worst start of the campaign, yielding six runs in five innings, Victor Robles took some tiny steps forward — then some tiny steps back — in the leadoff spot. The 24-year-old homered on the first pitch he saw at the plate, walked, popped up and struck out looking. He is back atop the order because the other options were shipped out at the trade deadline. Manager Dave Martinez is seeing whether, this time, he can stick.

“He came out aggressive in the strike zone, and that’s what we’ve talked about with him,” Martinez said. “He gets a ball in the strike zone that he feels like he can hit, we want him to take a swing at it. And he did that. . . . He’s getting better. He’s having good at-bats.”

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Robles isn’t the only one with a chance created by the fire sale. Because Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson are gone, Kyle Finnegan is the Nationals’ closer. Because Kyle Schwarber and Josh Harrison left, too, Yadiel Hernandez is getting regular starts in left field. Without Yan Gomes and with two veteran catchers on the injured list, Tres Barrera and newcomer Riley Adams are splitting the position. Without Jon Lester, Josiah Gray, a pitcher who arrived in the deal for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, went straight to the rotation.

Carter Kieboom, 23, is starting at third and Luis García, 21, at second. And in the second inning, they smacked back-to-back homers off Phillies starter Chase Anderson. García then added a second blast in the seventh, logging his first-career multihomer game.

But Robles’s leadoff opportunity is a bit different than the rest. During spring training, at the Nationals’ complex in West Palm Beach, Fla., a common thought was that the club’s best order had Robles at the top. Martinez kept explaining how Washington needed someone, preferably Robles, to reach base in front of Trea Turner and Juan Soto. Hitting coach Kevin Long was even more direct, saying in early March: “If we can have Victor Robles lead off, it’s huge. … It kind of lengthens out our lineup.”

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Then the Nationals tried it for eight games and hit the eject button. It was an incredibly short leash. And not only was Robles removed from the leadoff spot, he was shunned to eighth or ninth in the order for most of the past three months. Martinez batted Turner first, then Schwarber for that searing-hot stretch in June, then Alcides Escobar when both Turner and Schwarber were hurt. Then after the deadline, it was Robles’s job again.

“The most important thing for me is to get on base,” Robles said in Spanish through a team interpreter. “I need to be on base to allow the hitters behind me to be able to have runners on and drive me in, basically.”

He entered Wednesday with a .198 batting average, .321 on-base percentage and .283 slugging percentage in 296 appearances. That’s extremely limited production with next to no power. He is swinging less and chasing less and, believe it or not, has lowered his strikeouts while increasing his walks. But way too much of his contact is soft and ineffective.

Last summer, as he struggled on offense and defense, the stated reason was an added 15 pounds of muscle, weight he didn’t carry well. This year, Martinez’s only public explanation is that Robles is still hunting consistency and still young. But the latter can only stretch so far.

At some point of this Nationals rebuild, Robles will have to accelerate or move aside. That’s why, for him and the team, the answer to whether he can bat leadoff — or somewhere close to it — is important. His first-pitch homer off Anderson’s fastball, a 424-foot blast, was just his second of 2021. His four-pitch walk was a product of Anderson’s sagging command, not notable patience. And his third result, a pop-up on a high slider, looked like a lot of his season.

“[Josh Bell] has helped as another set of eyes for me out there,” Robles said of the Nationals’ first baseman. “Just the time he’s given me and the help he’s been able to bring to me, any word of advice, has been great.”

Robles ended his night with a five-pitch strikeout against lefty reliever Matt Moore. It started with Robles taking back-to-back curves in the middle of the plate. Then he took an inside fastball, fouled off a change-up and swung through another, on the low-and-outside corner, to go down.

Many parts of his game, past and present, were mixed into Wednesday’s defeat: a flash of power, the occasional walk, weak contact, solid defense and crippling indecisiveness with Moore’s off-speed pitches. Robles needs the positives to show up more often.