ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Everyone in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse was diplomatic after their 1-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday afternoon, though if someone were charged with choosing a “worst loss of the season,” they probably would have picked this one.
They can write off lopsided losses such as Monday night’s. They can file away the ones in which some normally reliable figure lapses in a big moment. But no game this season highlights the troubles of this team like Tuesday’s, in which the little things undid them because the offense could do nothing at all.
They can no longer argue that is an aberration and not a habit. The loss was the Nationals’ 11th in their past 16 games, their sixth time shut out in that stretch. They have five hits in their past 18 innings. They are running into outs on the bases. They are playing like a team that believes its fate has been determined, not a team trying to determine its fate.
“We just have to keep at them,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “We had our chances there at the end. We just couldn’t come up with that hit at the end.”
The end he’s speaking of was a failed bases-loaded, one-out rally in the ninth that summed up the Nationals’ plight as much as anything.
After the Nationals were no-hit through five innings and one-hit through eight, Bryce Harper walked. At that time, the always-experimenting Rays moved left-handed reliever Jose Alvarado to first base and brought in a right-hander to face Anthony Rendon.
Rays Manager Kevin Cash didn’t want to burn Alvarado, whom he would need for looming lefties Juan Soto and Daniel Murphy. Cash was willing to concede defensive certainty at first base, and Martinez hoped Harper would take advantage of it. The Nationals were willing to bet Alvarado would not handle a pickoff attempt or rundown with grace, so they wanted the former MVP to steal. Harper did not go.
“It’s really hard when you have Anthony hitting; he’s a guy who can hit the ball out of the ballpark, hit the ball in the gap,” Martinez said. “It was hard for Harper to time the pitcher.”
Rendon eventually struck out against reliever Chaz Roe, and Harper remained at first base. Harper is coming back to life lately, with six doubles in his past five games, and he missed a game-tying home run by inches in the sixth. But that he could not steal second meant the Nationals did not score when Soto and Murphy singled against Alvarado. They left the bases loaded when the Rays’ Sergio Romo got Trea Turner to fly out before striking out Michael A. Taylor on three pitches to end it.
The fourth inning featured a short-circuited rally, too. After Tampa Bay’s Nathan Eovaldi walked Adam Eaton and hit Harper, Rendon popped out on the first pitch. Then, Eaton got caught between second and third for the inning’s second out; he broke for third base and stopped, but Harper only saw him go and headed to second, leaving Eaton nowhere to go. The inning ended shortly thereafter. The Nationals went hitless through five innings against Eovaldi a day after going hitless through six against Blake Snell.
“I don’t know if our bats were very good all around,” Harper said. “We got to put that series behind us and do what we can to have a good off day [Wednesday] and get going in Philly.”
Highlighting mistakes such as Harper’s or Eaton’s or even Rendon’s also highlights the complicated part of assessing this team’s struggles — and, if one considers this important, the complicated nature of assigning blame. No one could reasonably say Rendon is not trying, or isn’t doing his job, or something like that. He had homered in three of his previous five games entering Tuesday. But in the fourth and the ninth innings, he did not do what the situation required.
Eaton entered Tuesday as one of the few players in this lineup hitting better than .300. (He fell to .293 with an 0-for-3 outing.) He tries so hard that Martinez has to hold him back to keep his knee and ankle healthy. But that fourth-inning mistake cost them.
Any one little thing done right would have changed everything Tuesday. Instead, the little things done wrong doomed the Nationals.
Teams worried about their fate, teams playing to win and not making assumptions, take care of those little things. Award-winning players such as Max Scherzer — who spends a few minutes before each start practicing holding the ball with a runner on, for goodness’ sake — leave no detail unaddressed, and do not forgive themselves their lapses. He corrected his Tuesday.
After allowing one run and needing 22 pitches to get through the first inning, Scherzer shut down the Rays through six more innings in which he threw 82 pitches. His only real jam came in the seventh — two on, no one out. When he struck out Adeiny Hechavarria for the second out, he slapped his glove, the most hyped-up man on a quiet field. When he got Kevin Kiermaier to pop up for the final out, he pumped his fists and nearly convulsed in celebration.
By that time, his teammates had provided him with one hit of support. They have scored two runs for him in his past four starts . . . combined.
“I think everybody’s been punched in the face before of not having success,” Scherzer said. “This is the big leagues; they are going to keep coming down your throat and keep attacking you.”
Unfortunately for Scherzer, fairly or not for his teammates, he looked like the only National on the attack during this two-game visit to St. Petersburg. Right now, they are mostly just getting punched in the face, unable to do the little things that could help them dodge the blows.