He had a chance to actualize the change his team had preached for days, to beat one of the best teams it had faced this season and build momentum.
Facing St. Louis Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller, Robles popped out.
The Nationals lost, 3-2, for their eighth defeat in the past 11 games. Struggles at the plate, as well as one inning that got away from starting pitcher Aníbal Sánchez, doomed them. The loss was frustrating for several reasons, but perhaps most notably because it squandered the continued success of the bullpen, which extended its scoreless streak to a once-unthinkable 16 innings.
The Nationals’ struggles and injuries — the volatile bullpen, the bad breaks, the recent sidelining of stars Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon — have landed them at 12-16 as April ends, one win shy of where they finished April last year (13-16). Manager Dave Martinez said he isn’t worried this season will end like the last.
“We started hitting really early [this season], but the bullpen wasn’t great, and now things are starting to turn around,” Martinez said. “But [the hitting will] turn around, too, and everything will start meshing and we’ll start winning these close games.”
On Tuesday, the Nationals couldn’t overcome a scuffling offense that, in the first two games of this four-game series, has scored in two of the 18 innings for five runs total. Their inability to score Tuesday wasn’t as much about failing to drive in runners as it was about failing to put them on. After putting seven base runners on in the first three innings, the Nationals had just five in the six innings that followed.
The lack of runs was particularly irksome for the Nationals because they hit Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright hard at first. Outfielders Adam Eaton and Robles led off the third inning by belting back-to-back homers. The 21-year-old Robles had worked a 3-1 count on the veteran Wainwright and then walloped a 74-mph curveball, the St. Louis stalwart’s signature pitch, into the Cardinals’ bullpen in left field.
“All I did was try to have patience up there,” Robles said. “Last few games, I felt like I’ve been a little bit too rushed out there and swinging at pitches out of the zone. . . . I worked with [hitting coach Kevin Long] on patience, patience. That’s all I did, and it paid off.”
The Nationals, as they have again and again this season, appeared to have the opposing starter on the ropes. This time, it looked as if they had a real chance to land a knockout blow. After the homers, the Nationals had runners on first and second and one out. But Wainwright struck out the next two hitters, denying the Nationals the finishing move they needed, and never let up after that.
Beginning with those strikeouts, Wainwright retired 12 of the next 13 Washington hitters. Even when the Nationals forced him out of the game in the seventh with a familiar jam — runners on first and second, one out — the Cardinals escaped. Nationals left fielder Juan Soto swung at the first pitch from reliever Tyler Webb, a fastball middle-in, and grounded into an inning-ending double play.
“Typically, he hits that ball,” Martinez said. “He just didn’t there.”
On the mound, the Nationals’ trouble culminated in the fourth, when Sánchez allowed all three St. Louis runs, but it began before that. For the first three innings, Sánchez mowed through the Cardinals, racking up six strikeouts and allowing one hit. His stuff looked as good as it had all season — he challenged the top of the St. Louis lineup with fastball after fastball and finished the night with a season-high 13 swings-and-misses — but his approach was inefficient. Twice in the first three innings he fell behind hitters 3-0 before he circled back for strike three.
In the fourth, Sánchez sandwiched a questionable walk — after which the pitcher and Martinez chirped at home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom about his strike zone — with two lineouts. Sánchez allowed a single to Jose Martinez but still attacked Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and got up in the count 1-2. Then Sánchez threw two uncompetitive pitches, one too low and one in the opposite batter’s box. Molina battled, fouling off the next three, until Sánchez finally missed for a walk to load the bases. St. Louis punished Sánchez for putting himself in that position.
On the first pitch he saw, second baseman Kolten Wong caught the defense off guard by rolling a bunt down the third base line. The Nationals, helpless, watched the Cardinals’ first run score.
“It was really a surprise,” Sánchez said. “This guy is the perfect guy to do that.”
Then center fielder Harrison Bader, who homered in the series opener Monday, smacked a two-run single up the middle to give St. Louis a lead that at the time seemed like nothing more than a placeholder.
For the next five innings, the lead never seemed out of reach for the Nationals. The bullpen did its job to ensure the scoreboard stayed as it was. The defense stayed clean, too. And yet, to a struggling Nationals offense, the deficit proved insurmountable.
During his postgame news conference, Martinez asked whether the next day was May 1, and he was told it was.
“I can’t wait until tomorrow,” he said.