ST. LOUIS — After the Washington Nationals fell to the St. Louis Cardinals, 4-2, on Wednesday night, a true dud of a loss in a week full of more inspired close calls, the video monitors in the visitors’ clubhouse at Busch Stadium were at capacity.
Daniel Murphy, half-changed, stared at one screen while Spencer Kieboom pored over another to his left. Adam Eaton sat a few feet away, staring at a screen as assistant hitting coach Joe Dillon pointed something out. And Trea Turner, still in full uniform, hat turned backward, sat at the last screen, his nose not three inches from it, eyes fiery in some studious trance.
“Just trying to figure out how not to miss pitches,” Turner said when the spell broke and reporters gathered around. “It really comes down to if you get pitches to hit, you’ve got to take advantage of them. Just trying to find any little thing to get an advantage.”
This is the state of the Nationals now, a game under .500 on Aug. 15, nine games back in a division they were supposed to win with room to spare, having suffered four straight losses at a crucial stretch. They are hunting for answers, by no means conceding but walking a fine line. At times like this, you could be tempted to try to change everything. But in this game, with a veteran team, they know that overhauling swings or approach or demeanor only would make things worse.
“You try to do something that you don’t normally do, it can backfire. I think everybody here knows what kind of players they are, what they can contribute to the team,” Turner said. “I don’t think anybody on our team is drastically going to make a change individually to better us. It’s just a matter of playing good baseball and getting those timely hits.”
But day by day, the status quo seems to serve the Nationals worse. Jeremy Hellickson had allowed two runs in four-plus innings when he tried to throw Yadier Molina a two-strike breaking ball in the dirt with a man on third. The ball bounced away from Kieboom, and Hellickson leaped to avoid a sliding runner at home plate as Kieboom’s throw flew by him. He landed awkwardly on his right wrist, so awkwardly that his manager thought it was broken. He tried to throw two more pitches. He couldn’t feel his pinkie or shake the tingling feeling in his hand. Hellickson came out of the game.
X-rays on his hand were negative, but neither he nor his manager seemed convinced he would avoid the disabled list. The team will decide whether he needs the DL some time Thursday. This rotation is already without Stephen Strasburg, who could return as early as next week but is no sure thing. A blow to Hellickson, one of the Nationals’ most consistent starters and a pleasant surprise all season, would make their attempts at a late-season surge more difficult.
“We’re going to need a lot of help, that’s for sure,” said Hellickson, whose right wrist was neither wrapped nor bruised nor rendered immobile after the game. “I was part of a team that came back from nine games in a month. So still not over, but we’ve made it pretty tough on ourselves here.”
Molina was going to be Hellickson’s last batter anyway, but the Cardinals built their lead to four against Wander Suero. The Nationals’ offense, meanwhile, did little against rookie left-hander Austin Gomber, who threw well and seemed to deceive them enough that his mid-90s fastball tied up some of their elite left-handed hitters.
But when the Nationals loaded the bases in the fourth, Michael A. Taylor struck out looking. When they put runners on the corners with two out in the fifth, Anthony Rendon hit a deep flyball to the track in right. When they put two men on in the eighth, Ryan Zimmerman grounded into a double play. If not for Murphy’s ninth-inning home run and Taylor’s bloop double, the Nationals would have been shut out. The game was never as close as the final score indicated.
Martinez admitted he has thought about changing everything, trying something drastic or something like that. He said he moved Juan Soto to second in the order Wednesday to see whether it would spark early runs.
“We just have to keep grinding. We’ve got some really good players, some good hitters. We’ll score some runs,” Martinez said. “Our pitching we’ll get straightened out. Our bullpen is beat up a little bit, so if we start getting those guys back and healthy, things can happen. Things can happen fast.”
Right now, things are happening too fast for this team to slow their slide. The Nationals cannot change everything because they need to do the things that have served them best. They cannot keep everything the same because nothing they do is working. And try as they might, as much as they knock on wood and cross their fingers, they just can’t stave off injuries that make the whole thing more difficult.
“I mean everyone’s coming in here and doing their work and preparing for the game. Not for lack of effort,” Zimmerman said. “I think we’ve had some chances that we haven’t capitalized on, but if I had the answer we wouldn’t be talking right now.”
Answers have been hard to come by for this team this year. All the Nationals can do is pore over those screens and hunt for them.