PHILADELPHIA — The Washington Nationals were out of gas and almost out of players, and when the game ended, when another day of scrambling was complete, all they could do was hope tomorrow would be better.
But each day has been more complicated than the one before it. The Nationals, down five key players, were downed, 7-1, by the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday afternoon. They had a chance inside rain-slicked Citizens Bank Park, after starter Aníbal Sánchez battled, and after catcher Kurt Suzuki homered, and even after their bullpen began to stir. Then reliever Matt Grace allowed five runs in the sixth inning and that, as they say, was that in Washington’s 11th defeat in its past 16 games.
The Nationals head to Milwaukee for a three-game set beginning Monday before swinging out to Los Angeles for four games against the Dodgers. Their toughest test of the young season — 17 games in 17 days, all against contending teams — comes with their roster thinning by the game. But the season doesn’t stop, for the Nationals or anyone else, so they will have to work with what’s left.
“We can’t give teams 30, 31 outs,” Manager Dave Martinez said, pointing to two early errors as a deciding factor Sunday. “It can’t happen.”
It was 12:09 p.m. when Jake Noll walked into the visitors’ clubhouse, backpack on, brown leather duffle bag slung over his shoulder. He made it to Philadelphia at 7 a.m., fresh off a red-eye flight from Las Vegas. The Nationals rushed him across the country and up from Class AAA after Matt Adams injured his left shoulder in the second inning Saturday night. Adams woke up with a stiff shoulder — far too stiff to swing a bat — and Washington placed him on the 10-day injured list alongside starting shortstop Trea Turner, starting third baseman Anthony Rendon, starting left fielder Juan Soto and starting first baseman Ryan Zimmerman.
While Noll settled in — after his locker was moved, and after clubhouse manager Mike Wallace fetched him a uniform and some hats — Martinez tried to construct a lineup in his office. Martinez asked bullpen coach Henry Blanco whether he was ready to play. He told reporters that he was going to need a while to construct it. His order, set about an hour before the game, included Noll at first base, Wilmer Difo at third and hitting second, Adam Eaton hitting third for the sixth time in his career and, among other oddities, Suzuki in the cleanup spot.
And, as it goes, the game found Noll right away.
Sánchez labored through the first inning, and the Nationals’ defense didn’t help. Carter Kieboom, the 21-year-old top prospect filling in for Turner, bobbled a routine grounder for his third error in nine games at shortstop. That put runners on first and second and, after Sánchez issued a walk and managed two strikeouts, Cesar Hernandez slapped a ball in Noll’s direction. The 25-year-old couldn’t come up with it, the ball trickled into shallow right field, and two runs scored. Sánchez wound up throwing 44 pitches in the inning and, at one point, Grace warmed up for an emergency entrance.
“I don’t really have an excuse for it,” Noll said. “I messed up, should have made the play. Big play in the game and didn’t come up with it.”
But Sánchez settled in, setting down eight in a row, and Suzuki scratched into Philadelphia’s lead. His fourth-inning homer gave him one in every game of this series and five in 60 plate appearances on the season. He provided one of Washington’s two runs Friday. He was a hero Saturday, tying the score with a three-run, pinch-hit homer in the eighth. Now he looked to jump-start a lineup missing its Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 5 hitters from Opening Day, plus Adams’s power bat.
Yet Suzuki’s offense was the end, not the beginning, for Washington’s hobbled lineup against Phillies right-hander Zach Eflin. The Nationals were buried in a six-run hole by the seventh and didn’t have an answer for the Phillies’ sixth-inning rally. Sánchez battled for 108 pitches to limit the bullpen’s workload but still exited after 4⅔ innings as Grace entered. Grace escaped the fifth unscathed but was knocked around in the sixth.
It started with three straight one-out singles, including a well-placed bunt by Eflin. That brought in the first run, and the next four came in on a fielder’s choice grounder by Jean Segura, a single by Bryce Harper and a two-run double by Rhys Hoskins. It was the second straight game that a Washington reliever allowed five runs in an inning — Joe Ross did so in Saturday’s win — but the Nationals didn’t have a late push this time.
“We got to catch the ball. We got to make plays,” Martinez said. “We didn’t hit good, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t go out there and catch the baseball and get outs.”
The rain thickened by late afternoon as Washington mopped up its mess. A pair of eighth-inning singles only led to two runners left stranded on base. The Nationals had a plane to catch, a new series to play and another puzzle to solve, depending on who shows up healthy in Milwaukee.
Right now, that’s not much more than a guessing game. And it’s making the real games harder and harder to win.