The Washington Nationals’ cosmetic changes Friday night did little to curtail the crisis at their core. Twice an offense rejuvenated by the return of shortstop Trea Turner mounted a comeback, and each time the Nationals got within one run only to see their bullpen put them further and further behind. Eventually, the game became a warped, unrecognizable version of itself as the Nationals lost, 14-6, to the Chicago Cubs.
The rest of the Nationals contributed in the loss, with errors and untimely hitting and straight-up bad luck, but the bullpen broke them. The game seemed well within reach until the start of the eighth, when the Nationals called upon Kyle Barraclough, one of Manager Dave Martinez’s more trusted relievers.
Washington trailed 5-4, and it had already erased the setback provided by Justin Miller, who had allowed two runs in the seventh. The only reason the Nationals weren’t tied is that, with two outs in the seventh, Brian Dozier ran into the inning’s final out at home plate after a wild pitch took an unfortunate bounce.
Martinez needed Barraclough to get through one inning. The right-hander sandwiched the one out he got with a single and back-to-back home runs, the second of which was hit by the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, who finished with three homers off three different relievers in the final three innings. The reliever after Barraclough, Dan Jennings, hit a batter, walked another and allowed two singles en route to two more runs that made it 10-4. The reliever after him, Matt Grace, allowed a pair of two-run homers in the ninth as blowout became embarrassment.
“It’s frustrating. Trust me,” said Martinez, his usual sunny demeanor visibly tamped down. “It’s frustrating [for the bullpen to pitch like this], especially when the game’s within reach.”
This loss, the way things fell apart, shattered any momentum the Nationals had just built by winning their first series in a month, against the National League East rival New York Mets no less. Furthermore, Washington finally seemed to be healing. After a rash of injuries and a slate of thin lineups that were ineffective as the losses piled up, the Nationals looked as though they were almost back to full strength. Turner’s return Friday after missing more than six weeks with a broken right index finger sustained in the team’s fourth game punctuated the optimism.
The shortstop’s comeback felt like more than a boost in the order or a surer glove on defense. Turner, who went 2 for 5, wasn’t here just to solidify a shortstop position that had grown shaky in his absence. He wasn’t here just to catalyze a struggling lineup with needed pop and fleet feet. He was here to help make the Nationals competitive again, to try to close the door on an ugly chapter of the season that Washingtonians hope will stay just that.
Then came Friday’s implosion. The injuries returned — Miller departed with a strained rotator cuff and outfielder Victor Robles, hit by a pitch, with a wrist contusion — and the bullpen registered more runs allowed (11) than outs (nine).
From the first batter, starter Max Scherzer grew frustrated with himself for a lack of command. He issued a rare four-pitch walk to leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber, who later scored on a double. In all, Scherzer allowed three runs in six innings, and, though he was not to blame for what the game became, the relatively short start pigeonholed the Nationals.
The right-hander’s team wasn’t in a strong position to win without him. Martinez has one reliever he trusts, closer Sean Doolittle, and he had been used on back-to-back nights. To capture a close game, Martinez needed to try to cobble together superlative outings from the worst bullpen in baseball (6.20 ERA). Instead, it blew up.
Still, Scherzer maintained this loss, despite its ugly ending, counted no more than any other.
“Just come out tomorrow and win,” he said of how the team can overcome the defeat. “Just come out there with a good fight and just play good baseball.”
The offense tried to dig the starter out of an early 3-0 hole and render reliever worries unnecessary. Anthony Rendon provided some help with his first home run since returning from the injured list May 7, a two-run shot in the third, but beyond that the lineup looked like it had before the Nationals healed up.
In the next three innings, the Nationals had runners on second and third with no outs, the bases loaded with two outs and runners on first and second with one out. They scored no runs and stranded seven runners.
Still, nothing replicated the frustration of the seventh. After the Nationals roughed up former teammate Brandon Kintzler to pull within 5-3, the Cubs brought in flame-throwing reliever Carl Edwards Jr. with two out and runners at second and third.
The righty balked in a run to make it 5-4. Then he threw a wild pitch, and Nationals outfielder Gerardo Parra waved Dozier in from third base. Dozier got halfway home when he saw the ball had popped up directly in front of the plate. While the catcher scrambled away, thinking the ball was behind him, Edwards grabbed it and chased down Dozier, who tried to deke the pitcher. But home plate umpire Dan Iassogna ruled Dozier out of the base path. The inning ended.
The Nationals’ best chance at tying the score evaporated. Their best chance at propelling forward a night seemingly full of hope ended in exasperation. In the ninth, Dozier doubled in two runs that might have been useful to the Nationals two innings earlier. But by then, it was too late.
“You have to [flush those last few innings],” Dozier said. “You have to in these types of losses. It got out of hand, but they played really good. Tip your hat and move on.”