PHILADELPHIA — The offseason questions about these much-heralded Washington Nationals boiled down to these: Could they hit consistently? And could their bullpen back their vaunted starting rotation?
The answers will change as the season progresses — injured stars will come back to the lineup, young relief pitchers will gain experience — but Friday, the answer to both questions was negative. The offense struggled, the bullpen blinked and the Nationals fell to the Phillies, 4-1.
In an early April chill, left-hander Gio Gonzalez seemed to lack feel early. Given a lead by Michael A. Taylor’s leadoff home run, he allowed base runners in all but one of the seven innings he started. By inducing bad contact and creating double-play balls, he worked through them.
The 1-0 lead held until the seventh, when Gonzalez’s command abandoned him and his composure devolved with it. He walked two batters and hit another.
Manager Matt Williams opted for left-hander Xavier Cedeno instead of veteran left-hander Matt Thornton or emerging right-hander Blake Treinen. Treinen is scheduled as the eighth-inning man, at least for now. Thornton is more a strikeout pitcher than a groundball, double-play type. So Cedeno found himself with the game in his hands. He fumbled it.
Cesar Hernandez, a switch hitter, hit the first pitch Cedeno threw past first baseman Ryan Zimmerman into right field. One pitch, one hit, two runs. By inning’s end Cedeno and Craig Stammen had given up four runs, three credited to Gonzalez. Cedeno faced two batters, allowed a hit and hit a batter. The fourth run was credited to him.
“I was looking for a groundball. That was why I decided to go with the cutter [to Hernandez] and didn’t get it all the way in,” Cedeno said. “That’s why he hit it so hard. But I’m definitely trying to get a groundball.”
Williams explained that the Nationals wanted to make Hernandez hit from the right side and therefore chose Cedeno. Hernandez entered as a .274 hitter against left-handers in his career and .256 from the other side in 237 total career at-bats, though he had more than twice as many career at-bats against right-handers than left-handers.
Phillies starter Jerome Williams is neither Matt Harvey nor Jacob deGrom, the talented young Mets starters who had limited the Nationals the previous two days. He had been good since joining the Phillies in August, 4-2 with a 2.83 ERA in nine starts late last season, but he is not dominant. With the exception of Taylor’s home run, he held down the Nationals by mixing pitches and changing speeds, striking out six in six innings.
Taylor’s production — he is hitting .294 with an .882 on-base plus-slugging percentage — has been crucial for a Nationals lineup weakened by injuries and struggling to convert scoring chances early. The rookie chosen to fill in for injured Denard Span leads the Nationals in RBI with three, all of them from the leadoff spot, and is tied for the team lead in hits (five).
Before Friday’s game, Matt Williams assured reporters that scoring chances would come. Three games of 162 were not enough to draw conclusions. That is true, but three games grew to four Friday. The Nationals had three chances with runners in scoring position Friday night and converted none of them.
“It’s still really early, but we can’t be saying that forever,” second baseman Dan Uggla said. “We’ve got to make the adjustment and start putting some runs on the board. We do have some key guys out, but we have way more talent than what we’ve shown the last four games offensively. It’s a matter of bearing down, sticking your nose in the dirt and getting it done.”
Gonzalez almost made one run stand up. He shed doubts created by a two-walk first inning and found his curveball. With it, he created six scoreless innings, not so much dominating the Phillies’ lineup as navigating around it. He meandered into the seventh but began to fray when he walked Grady Sizemore with one out.
“He still hadn’t given up a run. Unless we have to get him out of there, we have to try to left him finish that,” Williams said. “It didn’t work out that way.”
When Cameron Rupp fouled off a put-away curveball, Gonzalez smacked his glove. When Rupp nearly swung and was ruled to have checked, Gonzalez threw up his arms. As it has before, wildness accompanied the emotion, and the smallest crowd in the history of Citizens Bank Park (19,047) found itself at attention. Then Gonzalez hit Andres Blanco. Bases loaded. Gonzalez’s evening was done.
“I felt great all the way to the seventh inning and just couldn’t find it after that,” Gonzalez said. “I couldn’t explain it if I wanted to. It’s tough to say. I gotta throw strikes. I gotta get the guy out. I gotta execute. I gotta do a better job.”
The Nationals have scored one run twice in four games and never more than three, testing the starting rotation that was built to withstand such stingy showings but would rather not. Chilly nights sometimes stifle hitters. Three top-of-the-order hitters — Anthony Rendon, Denard Span and Jayson Werth — are injured. Four games equates to 2 percent of the regular season schedule.
But concerns that hovered throughout spring training have been validated, not allayed. The bullpen, which had been fine through the first three games, showed soft spots Friday. The offense, which had struggled in the first series, continued to do so. The Nationals send 16-game winner Doug Fister to the mound Saturday, hoping their fifth starter can provide their second win. He may need some help.