A few hours before the Washington Nationals launched a mission to overcome their mediocre first half of the season, Manager Dave Martinez brought his team together on the field at Nationals Park on Friday. The Nationals were there for their mandatory post-all-star-break workout. Everybody, coaching staff included, was given red shirseys with their numbers and “NATIONALS” on the nameplate across the back. Martinez delivered a succinct message: to erase the deficit they have created and make the playoffs they needed to play fundamentally sound, team baseball. It started with Game No. 97 against the Atlanta Braves.
The game set up wonderfully for the Nationals. Stephen Strasburg was taking the ball on his 30th birthday for his first start in nearly six weeks after dealing with right shoulder inflammation. Ryan Zimmerman was off the disabled list, too. It was as complete as the Nationals have been all season, but that didn’t matter. The reinforcements were inadequate, and Martinez’s words didn’t resonate in an 8-5 loss.
By the fifth inning, the Nationals (48-49) again resembled an overmatched club — only this episode featured a crack in the team cohesion they have touted for months, frustration seeping from more underperformance. This time it was there for everyone to witness as they fell 6½ games out of first place in the National League East.
The fissure opened in the Nationals’ dugout with two outs in the top of the fifth inning. Strasburg had briskly jogged off the field, exiting a disappointing return earlier than the Nationals envisioned, and was greeted with a pat on the back from Max Scherzer. Strasburg, uninterrupted, put his cap and glove down on the bench and took a seat but not before saying something to Scherzer. The two then engaged in a quick, heated discussion before walking down the steps into the clubhouse, away from cameras. The exchange did not go unnoticed.
“You got to be in the family [to know what happened],” Strasburg said.
After the game, Martinez had a closed-door, 20-minute meeting with his star pitchers. The optics on display in the dugout weren’t good, but the manager insisted it was just two competitive players getting emotional. He looked at it as them taking ownership. Nothing more. He said he wasn’t worried about any repercussions.
“This stuff happens,” Martinez said. “I’ve been on teams where guys wanted to choke each other. It’s a long season. They get it. They understand. We talked about it. I don’t want to lose sleep about it. It was a really good conversation. I’ll just leave it at that. Things are good.”
Strasburg’s frustration stemmed from the bludgeoning the Braves’ potent lineup gave him. The right-hander, making his first start since June 8, allowed six runs on eight hits and allowed three steals in 4⅔ innings. He threw 98 pitches. A higher rate than usual was struck with authority. Strasburg is supposed to bolster a rotation that struggled mightily without him. On Friday, he didn’t pitch like much of an upgrade because his command didn’t cooperate.
“He had flashes of his good stuff,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “He was just a little inconsistent for him today, but that’s to be expected first time out there. But he did show signs.”
The Braves (53-42) pounced and did not relent, but the defense behind Strasburg didn’t help, particularly in the first inning, when Martinez’s call for crisp fundamentals went unanswered. After Ronald Acuna Jr. smacked a single to lead off the game and then stole second base, Ozzie Albies whacked a line drive to left field that forced Juan Soto, a defensively challenged rookie, to make a decision. Does he play it safe and play the ball off a bounce? Or does he charge the ball, trying to make a play but risking the ball getting past him? He took the risk — and paid the price when the ball bounced away. Acuna scored, and Albies wound up at second with a double.
Albies then stole third base before Freddie Freeman hit a groundball to third baseman Anthony Rendon, who looked Albies back at third base but fired a wild throw across the diamond. The toss forced first baseman Matt Adams to fall stretching for the ball, which gave Albies time to scamper home for the Braves’ second run.
Albies, an all-star, hurt his hamstring on the sprint, which forced him to exit the game in the third inning. By then, the Nationals had plated a run on a double steal, which featured Bryce Harper swiping second and Adam Eaton becoming the fourth player in Nationals history to steal home. But the Nationals left the bases loaded against Anibal Sanchez, a soft-throwing right-hander who has enjoyed a resurgent season.
“Sooner or later, those big hits need to start coming in bunches,” Eaton said. “Tough game. That’s a game, though, that I think we need to win.”
A big hit came with nobody on base the next inning when Adams smashed a solo home run. Adams started over Zimmerman because he crushes right-handed pitchers enough to force Washington to platoon, at least for now, its longest-tenured player. The homer was Adams’s 16th of the season — and 15th off a right-hander.
The power display knotted the game. The tie lasted half an inning. Consecutive doubles by Kurt Suzuki and Johan Camargo gave the Braves a 3-2 lead, and they padded it with three runs in the fifth inning. The barrage began with three straight hits, concluding with Nick Markakis’s sacrifice fly. Strasburg lasted three more batters. His stuff was there — the last fastball clocked in at 95 mph — and he compiled six strikeouts. The Braves were barreling balls with consistency anyway.
Trea Turner belted a solo homer and Soto added a two-run shot in the eighth inning, but the Braves’ two solo home runs against the Nationals’ bullpen afforded them ample cushion. Despite having their second ace back on the mound and a renewed focus on fundamentals to start the second half, the first game post-all-star break was reminiscent of the first half, with a new wrinkle: a dugout implosion between their star pitchers on full display.
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