ATLANTA — Doug Fister fields his position so well that the Nationals ask their minor league pitchers to emulate his defensive approach. When he threw away two pickoff throws in the fifth and sixth innings of Monday night’s 8-4 loss to the Atlanta Braves, one of Washington’s last pillars of defensive reliability toppled.
By the end of the game — a few hours after the team confirmed ace Max Scherzer is too injured to start Tuesday and Anthony Rendon was scratched from a minor league rehab game — the rest of the Nationals’ foundation seemed to have fallen apart, too.
Nothing has truly crumbled yet, of course. Though the Nationals have lost six straight games, are alone in last place in the National League East and have the second-worst record in the National League, it is still April — far too early to reduce all hope to rubble. But right now, nothing is going right.
Third baseman Yunel Escobar left Monday’s game in the fifth inning with a hand injury caused when Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons slid into third and cleated Escobar’s glove. The play came after one of Fister’s errant pickoff throws. Second baseman Danny Espinosa retrieved the ball up the first base line and fired to third, where his throw beat Simmons. Simmons spiked the glove off Escobar’s hand, and the ball went flying. Simmons was safe at third, and Escobar left the game.
Escobar would not assess the slide after the game, though he said he expects to miss a day or two, as his hand is cut and swollen. As of late Monday night, then, the Nationals have three healthy infielders — Dan Uggla, Espinosa and Ian Desmond — to play second, third, and shortstop.
The slide seemed to invigorate the Nationals somewhat. Rafael Martin hit Simmons with a pitch in the seventh. In the eighth, Desmond slid hard into second baseman Jace Peterson to break up a double play — “a clean” slide, Nationals Manager Matt Williams said.
But by then, the game was largely out of reach. After Bryce Harper walked for the 19th time this season in the eighth, Uggla — whom the Braves are paying more than any player on their current roster — tripled into the right-center field gap to score Harper. The throw to third bounced away, and Uggla scored too. That gave the Nationals four runs, more than they scored in any game this weekend. But they committed four errors, too. So it goes for the Nationals these days.
“We got some hits. We scored some runs, but not enough tonight,” Williams said.
The Nationals’ starting rotation is supposed to be the keystone, the force that would help them withstand the inevitable ebbs and flows and injuries of a 162-game season. But a day after Gio Gonzalez allowed six runs in five innings, Fister did not pitch well, either.
He missed spots with uncharacteristic frequency, walking two in the first inning. The normally steady right-hander who relies on his sinker left pitches up. He gave up five runs, four earned, on 10 hits in 52/3 innings, and has now given up four earned runs in back-to-back starts. His two errors were one more than he committed during the 2013 and 2014 seasons combined.
“We won’t see that again all year probably,” Williams said. “So it is what it is. Rough game for us all around.”
Meanwhile, another soft-tossing journeyman, Braves left-hander Eric Stults this time, shut down the Nationals’ offense. The first six hitters in the Nationals’ order went 1 for 15 against him. The one hit was a double in the third inning from Ryan Zimmerman and drove home the Nationals’ first run.
The Braves hit balls well all night, and 13 became hits. They took a 2-1 lead on a sacrifice fly by Peterson in the fourth inning, then added three more runs in the sixth on a two-run home run by Kelly Johnson and a suicide squeeze executed by Eric Young Jr.
In the seventh, Desmond helped another Braves rally when a hard-hit potential double play ball flew under his glove. Desmond had not made an error in his seven previous games, his early season fielding woes seemingly behind him. But the ball skipped through his legs for his ninth error and the Braves led 7-2 before Martin got out of the inning.
“We can’t wait for things to start to go our way,” Uggla said. “I think everyone in this clubhouse feels the same way. I know after playing against [the Nationals] for so long that we have the makeup to do it.”
After the game, Desmond said “frustration” set in after he watched Escobar taken out by the slide. Something percolated in the Nationals’ dugout, and they scored three of their four runs after that play.
Maybe that slide will not matter Tuesday. Maybe it will go down as just another bad defensive play and another injury in a season full of both. Or maybe the play that looked like the surest sign that everything was falling apart will help the Nationals start pulling it back together.
“I think we go out there with a lot of energy, and maybe that’s what we needed a little bit, a little kick in the butt to get us going a little bit,” Harper said. “Hopefully we go out there [Tuesday] and play with some attitude and win some ballgames.”