Because as Taylor puzzled over that glove, he embodied the state of this underachieving team, which fell 5-4 to the Brewers when Cain scored on a sacrifice fly. The Nationals are now two games under .500 and seven games back in the National League East after the Phillies’ 7-4, 16-inning victory over the Dodgers. And, much like Taylor at first base in a five-man infield Tuesday, they are unable to figure out how they got there.
“It’s not for lack of trying. I’m not sure what it is, or why we’re not adding on or pushing back when we’re down,” Adam Eaton said. “It’s just kind of the way it’s been. We’re kind of looking for answers. Hopefully it starts tomorrow.”
This team has hoped something would start tomorrow for weeks now. Over and over, Eaton and his teammates and his rookie manager have acknowledged the need for urgency, to win now, to win series. Over and over again, they have had to explain why that didn’t happen — and remain positive about the possibilities.
No [you don’t allow frustration],” Dave Martinez said. “We’ve got a lot of games. We can turn this around, no doubt about it. We’ve got the guys to do it.”
Martinez pointed to recovering veterans like Eaton and Ryan Zimmerman as evidence for hope. Eaton homered and reached base three times Tuesday. Zimmerman doubled twice. They will help.
But even at their best, they did not help enough. When Jeremy Hellickson made a few bad pitches in the fifth that permitted Brewers’ starter Junior Guerra to double and score, then Christian Yelich to hit a two-run homer, the Nationals could not respond. When Brandon Kintzler allowed the tying run to score in the seventh, they could not respond then either — despite putting runners on in the ninth and tenth innings.
“We need to be strong in our innings of three to seven really,” Eaton said. “You see us, we get a lead early or we get down early, one of the two, and we really need to keep pushing.”
Tuesday’s lineup was not the best the Nationals have to offer. Bryce Harper was a late scratch because of what Martinez described as a “stomach thing.” Trea Turner was out of the lineup, too.
Martinez benched Turner — hours after the shortstop was named the team’s 2018 Heart and Hustle Award winner — for not hustling Monday night. He pinch ran for Zimmerman as the go-ahead run in the 10th. Dan Jennings picked him off as he took off for second.
So Matt Grace inherited a tie game in the tenth, and surrendered back-to-back singles to Cain and Yelich. At that point, Martinez marched to the mound and Taylor jogged in to grab an infielder’s glove from the bench. The Nationals intentionally walked Jesus Aguilar to give themselves a force at every base, then moved Taylor to third base to complete a five-man infield — to give themselves the best chance to cut off the winning run at home.
Grace then struck out Travis Shaw, at which point Taylor jogged across the field and switched gloves with Reynolds. A few moments after Taylor marveled at that first baseman’s mitt, Tyler Saladino hit a short flyball to left field. Juan Soto could not throw out Cain at the plate, and Taylor walked off the field with that first baseman’s mitt still on, a symbol of this team’s desperation, and another futile attempt to salvage hope from disappointing circumstances.
“It’s a tough loss. I feel like we’re doing things right, playing the right way,” Grace said. “It’s just, for whatever reason, ground balls go through and they don’t go through for us. That’s just the way baseball is sometimes unfortunately. It’s not for a lack of effort or focus. We know where we’re at in the season, and that these are obviously important games.”
Losses like these inflict a blunt force, dull enough to cause a little ache. But when the blows accumulate, night after night, series after series, they can knock the wind out of hopeful lungs. Recovery is not inevitable.
For a long time, recovery did feel inevitable for this team, which had underachieved so drastically that the pendulum seemed certain to swing back toward talent. The Nationals entered Tuesday with a week left until the trade deadline, with 63 games to play. The pendulum seems unwilling to budge, and the Nationals can only puzzle over the wreckage, wondering why it won’t.