NEW YORK — The Washington Nationals traveled to New York City on Thursday night on a somewhat positive note. They had suffered a frustrating loss Thursday but took two of three games from the second-place Philadelphia Phillies, giving their playoff chances some oxygen. A good weekend against the rudderless New York Mets could sustain them further before another three-game set against the Phillies. Series victories were required. Sweeps were preferred.
The Nationals will secure neither this weekend. Instead they are on the brink of getting swept after Saturday’s 3-0 loss at Citi Field because their offensive production has vanished. Saturday marked their third straight shutout loss, something the franchise last managed in April 2004, when the team was still playing in Montreal. It was the 14th time this season the Nationals failed to produce a run, doubling last season’s total. That is tied for most in the National League. They put multiple runners on base in four different innings and stranded eight. The Mets (58-71) scored in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings Saturday. The Nationals (64-66) haven’t scored since Wednesday.
All that, the three-day drought within a stormy season, has befuddled a club that began the season with World Series aspirations and is now coming to terms with an 8½ -game deficit to the National League East-leading Atlanta Braves.
“We’ve discussed it really all year,” Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton said. “It’s been difficult. It’s very mind-numbing because we have such good talent.”
Washington’s continued offensive struggles were not for a lack of creativity. Resembling a club from a bygone era — before the true-outcome gospel’s emergence, when launch angles were for physics classes and striking out was sinful — the Nationals began the game with consecutive bunts against right-hander Zack Wheeler. First, Eaton dropped a well-placed drag bunt on the game’s first pitch. Trea Turner followed with another one down the first base line. He was thrown out, but it worked as a sacrifice. Two batters later, Anthony Rendon singled to put runners on the corners with two outs. Then Juan Soto struck out. Opportunity wasted.
Washington tried another old-school approach in the third. With Eaton at first base after working a walk, Manager Dave Martinez called for a hit-and-run, and Turner executed to perfection with a hard-hit single through the vacated right side. Turner then swiped second base with a delayed steal before Bryce Harper walked to load the bases for Rendon. The Nationals had small-balled their way to another threat. They just needed a timely hit. It never came. Rendon lined out, and Soto hit into a fielder’s choice to end the inning.
The Nationals squandered more opportunities with runners on base in the fifth and seventh. In the fifth, Harper grounded into an inning-ending 6-3 double play. In the seventh, Turner grounded out to leave Washington empty-handed.
“I’m trying to get things going and moving things around and see what happens,” Martinez said. “It’s like somebody shut the door to get home. We got to get home. We got to get home.”
The sustained offensive incompetence mounted the pressure on Tanner Roark, and he responded by matching Wheeler, who tossed seven scoreless innings, until the sixth. That was when Roark gifted an 0-2 two-seam fastball over the plate to Amed Rosario, who lifted it over the wall for a solo home run. It was the 13th straight game in which the Nationals surrendered a home run. And it was Roark’s only mistake. Pitching on three days’ rest after a rain-interrupted three-inning outing, Roark allowed the one run on four hits. He struck out seven and didn’t walk a batter. He has a 1.61 ERA in seven starts since the all-star break, when his ERA stood at 4.87.
“It’s just confidence,” Roark said. “Not caring who’s in the box. Just hitting your spots and going after them. Making them feel uncomfortable and not the other way around.”
Unlike in the previous six outings, however, Roark took the loss Saturday. His day ended after 90 pitches because Martinez, seeking to muster a run, elected to pinch-hit for him with a runner on second in the seventh. Martinez chose Andrew Stevenson for the job, and Stevenson popped out to the catcher in foul territory. With first base open, Wheeler, who brushed Eaton off the plate with a fastball high and inside earlier in the game, hit Eaton with a first-pitch fastball a few weeks after Eaton’s slide broke Mets infielder Phillip Evans’s leg on Aug. 1. The play solicited criticism from Mets Manager Mickey Callaway. Saturday was the first time Eaton had started against the Mets since.
“If they want to hit me or throw at me, that’s fine,” Eaton said. “I take it. Just keep it below the shoulders and above the knee. I’ll be fine with that.”
Regardless, the Nationals had two runners on base again. And again they generated nothing, running their scoreless innings streak to 25. It climbed to 26 after Soto tried stretching a single into a double with two outs in the eighth. Soto beat the throw from center field but briefly bounced off the base during his headfirst slide while Rosario held his tag. Washington challenged, but the call was upheld.
The Nationals didn’t have another hitter reach base. They haven’t scored since Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off home run Wednesday night. That moment, a rare reason for elation, nourished the Nationals’ hopes, even after trading Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams in an awkwardly timed semi-fire sale. They were still alive. Three shutout losses later, the math says there’s still a chance to make the postseason. The bats, in their silence, may have said otherwise.