The feeling permeated the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse, the sensation of spinning wheels, of fighting hard and getting nowhere. Danny Espinosa, the victim of a generous strike zone and Reds closer Aroldis Chapman’s 100-mph, baseball-shaped blur, had ended the Nationals’ 2-1 loss to Cincinnati by pointing and screaming expletives at the home plate umpire. Still dragging a depleted lineup, the Nationals had played 33 innings in three days, and their pitchers had allowed 10 runs. From that had come one victory and a dead-even homestand.
“We’re banged-up right now, man,” center fielder Denard Span said. “It’s tough, man. I still feel like we’re playing good baseball, even with our circumstances right now.”
The Nationals headed to Pittsburgh weary but not defeated. They will send rookie Blake Treinen, fresh from Class AAA Syracuse, to the mound Thursday night. They expect first baseman Adam LaRoche to return Sunday.
Without LaRoche’s bat Wednesday, the Nationals continued their meager output against right-handed starters. Entering the game, the Nationals had hit .232 with a .300 on-base percentage against them. Reds right-hander Alfredo Simon allowed a leadoff homer to Span, and then the Nationals provided not a shred more support for Tanner Roark, who allowed two runs in six innings, his final out coming after a 61-minute rain delay. Roark’s ERA lowered to 3.42, four points behind Stephen Strasburg for the rotation lead.
“We’re confident,” Roark said. “We lost in the 15th inning the other day. It’s not like we’re getting blown out or anything. We’re not worried. We all feel confident we’ll go out there against the Pirates and go take the first one.”
On Wednesday, after Span blasted the second pitch Simon threw over the right field fence, Simon shut the Nationals down for seven innings, two of which came after he had already thrown 73 pitches and paused for the rain delay. The Nationals managed only three base runners against him after the second inning, and they let him escape the sixth inning — the first after the delay — in only five pitches.
The continued absence of left-handed sluggers LaRoche and Bryce Harper was glaring.
“With those two guys in the lineup, they definitely change the dynamics of our lineup against a right-handed pitcher,” Span said. “You lose that power and that threat of having big hitters come up in big situations.”
Once Simon exited, the Nationals’ chance to tie the score fizzled. Billy Hamilton trapped Span’s leadoff liner to center in the eighth, a play initially ruled an out but overturned after Manager Matt Williams’s challenge. Kevin Frandsen bunted Span to second, and Jayson Werth’s liner found Roger Bernadina’s glove in right. With two outs, reliever Jonathan Broxton blew a fastball past Wilson Ramos, stranding the tying run 90 feet from home.
“We had our chances to tie it, certainly,” Williams said.
The Nationals’ last chance came down to Espinosa, who on Monday had clobbered a leadoff double against Chapman to spark a ninth-inning rally. Chapman saved his most diabolical pitches for him. The left-hander started Espionsa with off-speed pitches — a relative term considering Chapman throws his slider at 90 mph. Chapman then moved to his fastball and rifled one that the radar gun clocked at 103 mph.
The next pitch came in at an even 100. It appeared to be off the plate, maybe low. Home plate umpire Alan Porter called strike three. Espinosa cursed and pointed at him on his way off the field. Afterward, Espinosa declined comment.
The start had been promising. On Tuesday night, Span went 5 for 5 with two doubles and a stolen base, the best game of his Nationals tenure. In his first at-bat Wednesday, Simon fed Span an 0-1, 86-mph cutter that veered inside. Span turned on the pitch and blasted it into the home bullpen. His sixth consecutive hit was also his first home run of the season, and the Nationals took a 1-0 lead. Last year, Span didn’t belt his first homer until July 27.
“It’s a good feeling when you look up at the scoreboard and you don’t have that goose egg anymore,” Span said.
The Nationals threatened to expand their lead in the second, but poor execution and unfortunate timing stymied them. Ian Desmond and Tyler Moore started the inning with singles. After Espinosa popped up, Simon walked Nate McLouth to load the bases with one out. To the plate came Roark. Keeping the bat on his shoulder would have been the optimal strategy. Instead, he dribbled a grounder to second with two strikes, and the Reds turned an inning-ending double play.
“Tanner swings it pretty good,” Span said. “You kind of don’t want him to just give up an at-bat. I’ve seen him plenty of times go up there and hit a ball hard through a hole. It’s kind of a Catch-22 right there.”
Still, Roark protected the one-run lead for three innings. Entering the fourth, he had allowed one walk and no hits. Facing Roark for the second time, the Reds pounced on pitches that stayed high in the strike zone. Of the first six hitters Roark faced in the fourth, three collected hits, one scalded a one-hopper that took a gnarly hop off Frandsen’s chest for an error and two hit flyouts to the warning track. Bryan Pena’s RBI single to center finalized the damage and made the score 2-1.
Roark collected himself and pitched into the sixth, when rain poured. The delay lasted long enough to knock out a starter, especially one who had already thrown 76 pitches. But Roark kept warm in the cage down the hall from the Nationals’ clubhouse. He threw 10 or 15 pitches, waited 10 or 15 minutes and did it again to simulate innings. By the time play was ready to resume, he still felt fresh.
“It’s one thing to get him if he’s got to go a full inning or an inning-plus,” Williams said. “We wanted to give him the opportunity to tie the game in the bottom of the inning. It depends on how they feel.”
Williams wanted to give Roark a chance to avoid a loss on his record. A tested team could not prevent it. They could only board a plane and try, again, to move forward.