NEW YORK — Nothing feels good for the Washington Nationals these days, not sunny summer Saturdays, not long-awaited major league debuts, not four-game series against a franchise in chaos. Everything seems to come with some sinking feeling, and every day that passes seems to throw weight on their backs. The stubborn reality of time is that it is slipping away.
The Nationals lost again to a struggling team Saturday, falling, 7-4, to the New York Mets in Austin Voth’s major league debut, a game that was never actually as close as the final score suggested. Washington (47-48) remains 6½ games out of first place in the National League East despite the fact that the Atlanta Braves have won two of their past 10 games and fallen into second.
Saturday had the makings of a feel-good story, like so many days this season have. The first time the Nationals called up Voth from Class AAA Syracuse, his parents scrambled for flights, flew to Washington from Washington state and made it in time for the game despite less than 24 hours of notice. Voth didn’t pitch. The second time the Nationals called him up, his family wanted to be there again. Voth didn’t pitch. So the third time they called him up, for about 24 hours in June, Voth told his parents and his wife to stay home.
But this time, as soon as it became clear the Nationals would not need him for emergency bullpen duty this past week, Voth’s family made plans to be in New York on Saturday. After 5 1 /2 seasons in the minors and months spent on the 40-man roster without ever getting the call, the 26-year-old made his first career start against Zack Wheeler and the Mets (39-54) on Saturday afternoon. He allowed seven runs in 4⅓ innings and hit a wall when he faced Mets hitters a third time.
Voth struck out the first man he faced Saturday. He threw a scoreless first. He allowed three consecutive singles to start the second, though none was hit particularly hard, and ended up allowing three runs in that inning — two of which scored on outs. Then, after back-to-back walks in the fifth, he surrendered a three-run home run to Michael Conforto. His line suddenly looked far worse. After two more singles and another run, Manager Dave Martinez pulled him.
“For me, I think it’s a lesson learned. He got a chance to pitch. I told him: You’re going to pitch up here. Learn from your mistakes and move on,” Martinez said. “Failure’s not a bad thing all the time. Just learn from it.”
Under normal circumstances, Voth’s poise and the relative effectiveness of his stuff would qualify as encouraging. If this team were cruising to a division title like it did in 2016 and 2017, a debut like this would be tolerable. But now, with the Nationals in danger of splitting or losing a series they desperately need to win, Voth’s efforts just left them behind once again. This team has asked a great deal of starters with no history of providing it. It is not getting what it needs.
On the same day Mets broadcasters questioned the Nationals’ “urgency,” hours after their superstar, Bryce Harper, could not understand why anyone was troubled by the fact that he did not run out a groundball Friday night, this team fell below .500 a day before the all-star break. Days like this continue to dull any silver linings.
The Nationals’ inconsistent offense lived up to its description again, swinging early and often against Wheeler, not working him deep into counts, not stirring many rallies whatsoever. Washington put two men on base in the first five innings: Anthony Rendon via a walk and Adam Eaton via a double. Baseball is difficult, and it can become more difficult on any given day. The problem right now is that baseball seems to get easier for Nationals opponents on every given day.
“Offensively, it’s got to be better,” Eaton said. “. . . We need to get those big hits, two-out hits, guys with runners-in-scoring-position hits. Those are the hardest hits to get in all of baseball, but when you do them, the game looks easy. When you don’t do them, the game looks very difficult.”
The Nationals’ first rally materialized in the sixth, when they loaded the bases with one out for Harper. Harper singled up the middle to get a run back. Then Matt Adams hit into an inning-ending double play. Rendon grounded home a run in the eighth, and Adams hit a two-run homer a few pitches later to make the final score less lopsided. But hits like that don’t change much now, even if they are the evidence this team uses to insist its energy remains positive.
“They had a lot of energy today. They played till that final out, scored a bunch of runs late,” Martinez said. “. . . Scoring first is key. It seems like we’re always playing from behind. When we score first, good things happen. The end result is what we want it to be.”
The Nationals’ problems are myriad and complicated. Something is just off. Perhaps everything is just off. They have 67 games to play. The figurative second half no longer seems to promise redemption as much as dangle it in front of them, just a good series or two out of reach.