NEW YORK — The Washington Nationals are still in the early stages of their rebuild, hoping to turn inexperienced players into winners down the line. Over the season’s final weeks, those players have gotten an up-close view of what winning looks like.
“We had opportunities in the first game to score — couldn’t do it. Second game, swung through a lot of pitches, missed a lot of pitches we could’ve hit,” Manager Dave Martinez said.
The Mets (100-61) reached the century mark in wins, but the Atlanta Braves clinched the National League East title with a win at Miami before Tuesday’s nightcap wrapped up. Still, wild-card-winning New York is heading to the postseason.
With the expanded playoff field, that has been a theme for the Nationals down the stretch. Over the past month, the Nationals have played the Mets, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Philadelphia Phillies, the Baltimore Orioles, the Miami Marlins and the Braves. All but the Orioles and Marlins will be in the postseason, and all but Miami will finish with a winning record. Washington entered Tuesday’s games 10-18 in that stretch, doing what it can to play spoiler without the kind of pieces that would let it focus on winning now.
The Nationals are built to rely on their starting rotation, but it has produced poor results throughout an injury-riddled season. Cory Abbott, Paolo Espino and Erick Fedde were the projected starters for this series; Fedde was the only one expected to be in the rotation. Espino was a bullpen arm, and Abbott was claimed off waivers in May; both are in the rotation because of injuries or to protect young players who were shut down early — to save their contributions for future seasons, when they will matter more.
That brought Abbott to the mound Tuesday afternoon with another chance to prove himself. How he’ll fit in the franchise’s plans next year remains to be seen, but his season of inconsistency concluded with him going winless in nine starts.
He stranded a pair of runners in the first inning and was attempting to do so again in the second. But after jumping ahead 1-2 against Brandon Nimmo with two outs, Abbott worked himself into a full count before Nimmo hit a two-run double.
Abbott opened the third by allowing an infield single, throwing a wild pitch that hit the backstop on the fly and issuing back-to-back walks. At one point in the inning, he had thrown 31 balls and 31 strikes on the afternoon. But after a pair of strikeouts, he escaped having allowed just one run on a Mark Canha sacrifice fly.
Nimmo’s fourth-inning solo shot handed the Mets a 4-0 lead, and Abbott’s day was done when the inning ended. He struck out six and walked four, leaving his ERA at 5.25.
“Ugly progress,” the 27-year-old right-hander said of his season. “Just finding myself and what I need to do to stay in the big leagues as a starter. I have a lot to go off of, I guess. Keep pushing it in the offseason and come back better and stronger.”
After Abbott’s struggles, the Nationals had to play from behind again. Only three of the afternoon’s nine starters — César Hernández, Lane Thomas and Victor Robles — had started on Opening Day against the Mets at Nationals Park.
Only Robles was playing the same position (center field) as he was for the first game of the year — and he exited in the fifth inning with a right calf strain, replaced by pinch runner Alex Call, after hitting a leadoff double. Riley Adams then slugged a two-run homer off Carlos Carrasco to cut the Nationals’ deficit to 4-2, but that was as close as they would get.
In the second game, none of Espino’s pitches fooled the Mets. The first three batters — Nimmo, Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil — turned fastballs into solo homers to the right field seats. It was the first time in Mets history that they opened a game with three straight home runs.
After that, four of the next five batters reached base, too — single, walk, walk, sacrifice fly, two-run double. Espino’s night was over after he managed just one out; he called it his worst appearance ever. At 0-9, he finishes the season without a win despite making 19 starts. He pitched the fourth-most innings (113⅓) without a win in major league history.
“That’s definitely my worst appearance ever — pro ball, Little League or anything,” Espino said. “It’s definitely going to be a night I’m going to forget after tonight.”
More pain came in the second inning: Shortstop CJ Abrams exited with a shoulder injury after he landed on it while diving for a groundball in the first; Ildemaro Vargas replaced him. Abrams is scheduled to have an MRI exam Wednesday.
The Nationals looked hopeless at the plate for most of the night — they struck out 17 times, putting up little resistance against their postseason-bound opponent, who tacked on another run when Francisco Álvarez hit his first career homer in the sixth.
What’s next for Martinez’s staff? The manager said before the doubleheader that each member of his coaching staff would be back next year.
That was expected but not set in stone. When the Nationals exercised the 2023 options in the contracts of Martinez and General Manager Mike Rizzo in July, Martinez said all of his coaches received two-year deals when they were hired. The implication was that they would be retained through next season.