PHILADELPHIA — Here is one idea: Blindfold the starting pitcher an hour before first pitch, and upon his release tell him it’s the second inning. If not that, what about hypnosis? Maybe the Washington Nationals could convince Major League Baseball to remove all ‘1s’ from stadium scoreboards. Something. Anything. They should be open to all suggestions. Thirty games in, nothing has solved the Nationals’ inexplicable, alarming penchant for first-inning implosions.
While the Nationals have so often overcome early meltdowns, Saturday night’s 7-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies offered proof that comeback victories should be treated as a luxury, not a formula. Tanner Roark began the worst outing of his brief, sparkling career by allowing a three-run homer in the first inning to Ryan Howard. The Nationals had recovered from an identical hole Friday night, and from similar predicaments all season. Saturday, right-hander A.J. Burnett showed them what usually happens when you take the field and start digging.
The Nationals have relied on stingy relief pitching and clutch hitting to surge from behind. But they are behind constantly. The Nationals have allowed 31 runs — more than one per game — in the first inning, more than any team in baseball. Eight times, they have yielded at least three runs in the opening frame. They have lost six of those games, including Saturday night’s shellacking.
“It’s perplexing,” Manager Matt Williams said. “We’ve come back in a lot of them. But over the course of a season, you’re not going to be able to come back as much as you want to.”
Their latest first-inning struggle cost the Nationals the chance to move into first place. The Atlanta Braves suffered their fifth straight loss, but remained a half-game ahead of the Nationals.
The Nationals have reviewed the way their pitchers prepare for starts, down to counting the number of warmup pitches starters throw in the bullpen. They can’t figure out any difference between now and seasons past, when they managed to survive the first with both axles still attached.
“It’s happened a few too many times too far,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “It just magnifies it.”
In his previous start, Roark retired the first 16 batters he faced and fired a shutout, the first complete game of his career. Saturday, whatever first-inning malady his rotation cohorts possess, infected him. Jimmy Rollins, the second hitter of the game, singled and stole second. Roark walked Chase Utley, which brought Howard to the plate.
Roark jumped ahead of Howard with a sinker he fouled away. On 0-1, Roark misplaced a sinker over the outside part of the plate. “I left it up,” Roark said.
Howard extended his massive arms and smashed it over the left field fence, an opposite-field, three-run homer that put the Nationals in a familiar position. Sunday, perhaps, the Nationals can petition the Phillies to shove back the start time 15 minutes.
Friday night, Jayson Werth’s error extended the first inning and Stephen Strasburg surrendered a three-run homer to Marlon Byrd. The Nationals scrapped for two runs against Cliff Lee and pulverized the Phillies bullpen as Strasburg righted himself. It had been an effective plan all season. The Nationals have been outscored, 82-56, before the sixth inning. From the sixth inning and later, the Nationals had drubbed opponents, 77-36.
“It is tough,” said catcher Jose Lobaton, who left for precautionary reasons two innings after Burnett drilled him in the right shin with a sinker. “Today was one of those days. You just want to put it past you and get ready for tomorrow.”
Saturday, Roark could not hold the fort, and Burnett would not buckle. Cody Asche made the deficit 4-0 with a solo homer off Roark in the second inning. The Nationals did not record their first hit until the fourth, when Adam LaRoche lined a double into right field.
Roark’s brief major league career had contained no nights without answers. He cannot claim that any more. The Phillies tacked on another run in the fourth inning, and they chased him before he could record an out in the fifth. In four-plus innings, Roark allowed seven runs on seven hits and a walk, striking out five.
“I didn’t have good enough command of my fastball,” Roark said. “That’s my bread and butter. When you don’t have command of that and it’s up, you get hit and the ball goes a long way.”
Roark (2-1) excels with precision, but Saturday his control escaped him. He consistently elevated his fastball. He also thrives when he attacks hitters, and he threw first-pitch balls to nine of 20 hitters. He typically makes pitching seem simple, but Saturday night he made everything hard on himself.
“The sinker wasn’t sinking,” Williams said. “The breaking ball was up in the zone. It happens.”
The Nationals have been shut out only once this season, and LaRoche prevented a second. In the sixth, he launched Burnett’s 1-2 sinker down the right field line. The ball snuck over the fence and inside the foul pole. LaRoche’s team-leading fifth home run of the season made it 7-1 and helped save face. Other than LaRoche, the Nationals managed one hit and a walk against Burnett in six innings.
“He was mixing his pitches and working quick,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “His whole career, he’s been good. The last few years, he’s really figured it out.”
Zach Walters added a pinch-hit home run off reliever Mario Hollands, which added to a season batting line heavy on true outcomes: he’s 3 for 14 with three homers, six strikeouts and two walks.
“After Zach hit the homer, we had a little momentum,” Desmond said. “I felt like we had a chance. Everyone in the dugout felt like we had a chance. That’s the difference in this year and years past.”
No matter how much the Nationals believe, comebacks can only happen so often. Once the sixth ended, a burst of rain and a flash of lightning sent the grounds crew scurrying. The 24-minute rain delay only extended the misery for the Nationals. Maybe the delay allowed the Nationals more time to figure out the first inning.