Fifty-eight games remain in the regular season, about a third of the season, so the Washington Nationals still have plenty of time to attempt to atone for their mistakes. But before that can even happen, the Nationals need to strap a tourniquet on this slow bleed. After their fourth straight defeat — a 6-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday night — the Nationals relinquished possession of first place in the NL East for the first time since June 19.
The Nationals will wake up Tuesday looking up at the streaking New York Mets, who routed the Miami Marlins. Remove emotions, and sitting in second place by only one game this early in August isn’t a big deal, but there are some underlying issues. One recent concern about the Nationals, at least momentarily, was quelled in a dramatic ninth-inning rally that showed their sluggish offense had life.
“You’ve just really try to stay within our team,” right fielder Bryce Harper said. “I don’t give a crap what the Mets are doing. Or Dodgers or Giants or Texas or anybody. I know what kind of team we are and our capability going into every single game. . . . We’ve got to win these ballgames. We’ve got to scratch and fight and claw and try to win these games. Hopefully we can do that the rest of the time we’re here.”
Long after Doug Fister put the Nationals in a 5-0 hole and Jonathan Papelbon gave up a solo home run in ninth-inning mop-up work, the Nationals scored four runs in a flash in the bottom of the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman homered and Michael A. Taylor’s two-run double off Diamondbacks reliever Daniel Hudson brought pinch hitter Jayson Werth to the plate representing the tying run. But Werth grounded out and Yunel Escobar flied out against Brad Ziegler to end the late rally.
“It’s the beginning of August,” Zimmerman said. “. . . Fifty-some games left and a game out. You give me that situation every year and I’ll take it every year.”
Now clear of the tough stretch of opposing pitching they faced the previous two weeks, the Nationals went up against rookie Zack Godley, who was making his third career start, and managed only five base runners against him. The lineup is almost whole — missing only Denard Span — but some players (Zimmerman, Werth and Anthony Rendon) missed so many games it will take time for the lineup to hit a groove. Harper said it took him 100 at-bats before feeling fully back in the past.
“If you’re here and you’re ready to play, there really is no excuse,” Zimmerman said. “Bottom line comes down to it: We’ve got to score more runs. To get where we want to get, we’re going to have to score runs against good pitchers and help our guys out.”
The other parts of the lineup aren’t helping either. Ian Desmond, who recently had a hot stretch, has four hits in his past 27 at-bats. Wilson Ramos snapped an 0-for-17 skid with an RBI single in the ninth. Since the all-star break, the Nationals are 6-11 and averaging 3.3 runs per game. The Nationals had only three hits entering the ninth inning.
“What a plan we had up there today,” Harper said. “I don’t think we had one.”
Fister insists he is healthy and his velocity has been improved since he returned from the disabled list June 18 with a flexor strain in his right forearm. But he isn’t pitching deep into games like last season and his sinker still isn’t moving normally, meaning fewer groundballs and making his margin for error is even slimmer.
Fister looked sharp through the first two innings but gave up the first run of the game on a sinker over the middle of the plate that light-hitting shortstop Nick Ahmed hammered over the fence in left-center. With one on an inning later, David Peralta hit Fister’s outside change-up over the center field wall for a two-run home run. Two pitches later, Welington Castillo smashed a fastball down the middle for another home run.
Fister’s three home runs allowed matched a career high. In 86 innings this season, Fister has allowed 12 home runs. Last season, he gave up 18 home runs in nearly double the number of innings.
“I’m going after them and I’m attacking with my best stuff,” he said. “When it’s up in the zone, it’s much easier to hit. It doesn’t have the deception or the sink on it. It’s a lot flatter and straighter, and these guys are good hitters and I have to respect that and I have to make a quality pitch. And if not, they make me pay for it.”
The Nationals then turned to Tanner Roark, Drew Storen and Papelbon to get through the final three innings. Papelbon gave up a solo home run to Jake Lamb in the top of the ninth that loomed large during the Nationals’ last-minute near-comeback.
“It can all change tomorrow,” Manager Matt Williams said. “It’s about tomorrow’s game. We can be back where we want to be tomorrow. We have to play well and beat those guys in the other dugout. It feels like second place. That’s where we’re at, so try to get back to where we want to be starting tomorrow.”