The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nats take one more pounding from the Phillies to cap a four-game sweep

Phillies 13, Nationals 1

A day after Patrick Corbin couldn't escape the first inning, Cory Abbott managed just 11 outs during Sunday's loss in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)

PHILADELPHIA — At the start of this season, a game within the game was to see if Cincinnati had lost again, using the Reds to show how rebuilding, stripped-down teams hurt baseball’s competitive integrity.

The Reds were 2-13, then 3-22, then 23-46 in late June, surely bound to affect the playoff race in one way or another. Would 19 meetings with the Reds give the St. Louis Cardinals or Milwaukee Brewers the inside track on a National League wild-card spot? It was fair to ask. But after Sunday, the Reds have eight more wins than the Washington Nationals, who lost to the Philadelphia Phillies, 13-1, to get swept out of a four-game series just days after they traded their two best players.

The Nationals (36-74) are what everyone thought the Reds had become when they spent the offseason shedding payroll. Washington is 7-25 since the start of July, has the worst record in the majors and has no left-handed relievers and arguably four position players who are best suited as designated hitters.

Point being, a dismal summer could get sadder still.

“The last three games were just not fun,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “We got to pitch better. I thought we swung the bats okay until today. But we just got to pitch better. We got to get some better starting pitching. We’re always behind, and it’s tough for morale.”

The Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs are grouped together as also-rans in the NL Central. Otherwise, the Nationals are joined at the bottom of the majors by the Oakland Athletics, Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals. But none of those clubs employed Juan Soto and Josh Bell until this past Tuesday.

And no other club has allowed 567 earned runs, 28 more than the next-closest team in pitching futility. The Los Angeles Dodgers, by extremely sharp contrast, had yielded an MLB-low 307 before hosting Soto, Bell and the San Diego Padres on Sunday night.

Washington’s staff also ranks 30th out of 30 with 169 homers allowed. The Reds, 29th in that category, are at 145. The latest homers off the Nationals were Darick Hall’s solo shot against starter Cory Abbott in the second inning Sunday, then Nick Maton’s two-run blast in the fourth — and Rhys Hoskins’s two-run shot and Hall’s second solo homer later in that same inning, all against Abbott.

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After Patrick Corbin lasted just two-thirds of an inning Saturday night, Washington badly needed length from Abbott, who was making only his second major league start of the season. The righty responded by recording his first three outs on six pitches. But the seventh pitch, an outside fastball, was smacked into the left field seats by Hall.

From there, Abbott never regained his rhythm. In the third, he plunked one batter and walked two, the second free pass bringing in a run. In the fourth, he walked the leadoff batter before Maton, Hoskins and Hall took him deep. Abbott, 26, logged 11 outs, walked five batters, threw 79 pitches and was tagged for seven earned runs.

“They are just really good at bat-to-ball skills, being able to lift the ball out of the park,” Abbott said of the Phillies. “They are sticking to their game plan, not getting out of it. … They weren’t swinging at the ones that I thought were competitive down. I really had to stay in the zone.”

Aaron Nola held the Nationals to a run on five hits in six innings. Washington was outscored 36-12 in the series. The Phillies (60-48) tacked on five runs off Victor Arano in the eighth. That rally began when shortstop Luis García fielded a grounder on the run and threw several feet wide of first.

Philadelphia is now 10-2 against Washington, filling the four games of this series with 14 homers. The Nationals have seven homers in their 12 matchups. They are on pace for 109 losses, which would be their most since moving to Washington.

To patch an overworked bullpen, the Nationals recalled reliever Mason Thompson on Sunday morning and optioned Jordan Weems — the first pitcher to wear it in Corbin’s dud Saturday — to Class AAA Rochester. To pad its outfield depth, Washington claimed 27-year-old Alex Call from the Cleveland Guardians, sending him to the Red Wings, too.

Thompson yielded a run in the seventh after Erasmo Ramírez handled seven outs behind Abbott. Call joins a Red Wings team that has lost 17 straight games. For the rest of the season, there is likely to be a lot of movement between the Nationals and their upper-level minor league teams. If you squint hard enough, to the point your eyes are almost shut, one benefit of this finish will be testing players who could be around in the future.

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Or, if you’re more into self-preservation, you may just close those lids until next spring.

“These guys got an opportunity to come up and play and show what they can do the last two months,” Martinez said. “I want these guys to go out there and play good, competitive baseball. If they can do that, we’re going to be in some games, we’re going to win some, we’re going to lose some tough games. But we need to be more competitive from the first pitch on.”

How did Call end up on waivers? Call made his major league debut in July and played in 12 games for the Guardians. But needing 40-man roster space for pitcher Hunter Gaddis on Friday, Cleveland designated Call for assignment. He was having a strong season with Class AAA Columbus, posting a .280 batting average, .418 on-base percentage and .494 slugging percentage with 11 homers and near-identical strikeout and walk rates. Call, who plays all three outfield spots, also provides a good bit of roster flexibility, arriving with three minor league options and almost six full years of team control.