But they do not have time to let baseball nature run its course, no time to simply hope the blooper they need falls safely to Earth, or that the line drives that keep finding opponents’ gloves suddenly decide to evade them. And even in the regular season, the Nationals’ offense never froze this solid: The fewest runs they scored during any three-game stretch was four, from May 5 to May 7, when their season seemed doomed to end long before late October.
If their offense does not reemerge in Game 6 — in which the Nationals will face one of the most decorated pitchers of his generation in Justin Verlander — the Nationals’ improbable postseason charge will end.
“We hit some balls hard — we really did,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “We just can’t get nothing going these last three days.”
When a whole lineup struggles, the turnaround often comes suddenly, spurred by one of those bloopers that falls or the line drive that finally sneaks through. The difference, in those cases, is not necessarily in control of the hitters themselves. Trea Turner, for example, hit multiple line drives right at people Sunday.
“Some things you can’t control,” Turner said. “I thought we hit the ball pretty well tonight for scoring one run. Just right at people. Bad aim.”
The Nationals felt much of their trouble Sunday night was caused by home plate umpire Lance Barksdale, whose strike zone Nationals hitters, catchers and pitchers took issue with all evening. With a man on first and two out in the seventh, Barksdale called Victor Robles out on strikes on a pitch that was shown to be off the plate by online pitch trackers. But Barksdale was not calling pitches Friday or Saturday. He might have slowed one rally. He did not slow their offense.
“Lance [Barksdale] isn’t the reason we lost,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Gerrit Cole beat us.”
Cole isn’t the only one who beat them. Turner went 1 for 14 in Games 3, 4, and 5. Adam Eaton went 2 for 11. Anthony Rendon was 3 for 12 in those three games but did not drive in a run. Until his home run to center in the seventh, Juan Soto was 1 for 9 with one RBI, which came on a weak groundball to first in a rally in Game 4. Zimmerman, who burst onto the World Series stage so memorably with his Game 1 homer, went 1 for 9 and left six men on base in Washington. The Nationals’ seventh and eighth hitters combined to go 5 for 21 in these three games.
“[That’s] part of baseball,” Eaton said. “We went through different series like that where we’ve been hitting balls hard and just nothing to show for it. We have to continue to try to have competitive at-bats, good at-bats.”
When the Nationals did have chances this weekend, they did not have good at-bats. In the second inning, for example, Soto and Howie Kendrick led off with back-to-back singles — no small feat against Cole. Zimmerman struck out. Robles hit a weak groundball that turned into a double play.
The Nationals made 32 plate appearances Sunday. Their hitters fell behind in the count 0-2 in 12 of them.
Cole has a long history of dismantling rallies and lineups with that kind of precision, but the Nationals have not been facing Cole all weekend. Zack Greinke had pitched inconsistently in these playoffs until he slowed the Nationals on Friday. Jose Urquidy was a relative unknown who stymied them Saturday.
Perhaps the trip back to Houston will revive the Nationals’ offense. Perhaps the dam will break on its own. Another of those universal baseball laws states that when hitters try to change too much, too fast, they rarely make things better. Besides, the Nationals are not working out in Houston on Monday evening. The next time they hit on a field will be for batting practice before Game 6.
“I’m a big believer in do what got you here,” Turner said. “ . . . For me, don’t panic. If you panic, you’re only going to make it worse. We feel good about going into Game 6. Now it’s do or die.”