That galling unpredictability surfaced again in Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. After busting out for 17 runs Friday night, the Nationals (42-39) failed to capitalize on opportunities against a bullpen tasked to eat seven innings because of an injury to the Phillies’ starter. The performance capped off a forgettable month plagued by offensive failures. The Nationals finished 9-16 in June, their worst record in a calendar month since they went 8-19 in June 2010. That team finished in last place with 93 losses. This iteration is in third place in the NL East, five games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves.
“I definitely think we can play a lot better in the second half and moving forward,” Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said. “I think winning games like tonight would be huge.”
With Washington barely over .500, the past two games showed both versions of a team treading water. On Friday night, the Nationals bashed seven home runs and busted out for 17 runs. Less than 24 hours later, Washington went 1 for 8 with runners in scoring position and left eight runners on base.
For the second straight game, the Phillies’ starter exited early. On Friday night, Nick Pivetta was simply ineffective and didn’t make it out of the second inning. On Saturday, Vince Velasquez departed after Adam Eaton’s 96-mph line drive ricocheted off his right arm in the second inning. The comebacker brought about Velasquez’s premature exit but not before he got up, dropped his glove and fired a laser to first base left-handed. Velasquez is right-handed. It was a remarkable, quick-thinking display of ambidexterity to end the inning.
Velasquez tumbled to the ground once he made the throw. He was writhing in pain on the infield grass and was eventually escorted off the field by the training staff. He didn’t return. The Phillies (44-37) later announced that he suffered a right forearm contusion.
The sequence gifted the Nationals another chance to pound a Phillies bullpen that struggled in logging 7⅓ innings the previous night with the same lineup. But they didn’t. Five Phillies relievers combined to limit Washington to one run on five hits over seven innings, which was good enough to hold the lead Philadelphia created early against Jeremy Hellickson.
“I thought we were going to score more than two runs after yesterday’s performance,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “We had our chances there later in the game, but when you get into a bullpen like that, you expect to score more runs.”
Six days after allowing 11 runs in 4⅔ innings in a rehabilitation start with Class A Potomac, Hellickson returned Saturday for his first major league outing since June 3. The results from his rehab appearance were ugly, but his strained right hamstring wasn’t a problem. He was healthy, and that was all that mattered for the Nationals. They needed him to eat innings in the majors.
Before he landed on the disabled list, Hellickson was pitching well, posting a 2.28 ERA in nine starts. He rarely was given a chance to go through lineups a third time, but the formula was effective. The Nationals were getting quality, if shorter, showings from their fifth starter and were 6-2 in games he started before he got hurt.
But Hellickson returned to a different landscape. Washington’s starting rotation hasn’t been the best one in the NL as it was when Hellickson pulled up lame. Stephen Strasburg is on the disabled list. Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark have struggled. Only Max Scherzer has been consistent over the past month.
Hellickson came back Saturday to more responsibility, but he didn’t get far with the longer leash. The right-hander could not complete three trips through Philadelphia’s lineup, failing to get out of the fifth inning. He threw a season-high 98 pitches (57 for strikes), surrendered a solo home run to Odubel Herrera in the third inning and gave up two runs on three straight two-out doubles in the fourth.
“Everything felt good,” Hellickson said. “Just still trying to find the release point. Fastball command wasn’t too good. Command in general wasn’t where I need to be, but I felt good.”
He was pulled with two runners on base in the fifth inning, a sticky situation Justin Miller resolved by inducing a flyout to extinguish the threat. With the Nationals trailing 3-1, Miller followed the escape with a scoreless inning. Ryan Madson and Kelvin Herrera each followed with scoreless frames. The efforts gave the Nationals a chance to chip away at their deficit. They appeared on their way when Anthony Rendon clubbed his fifth home run in nine games, a 471-foot blast to the second deck in left field off Tommy Hunter in the sixth.
But the Nationals didn’t muster anything else. They had a prime opportunity in the eighth, when Turner and Bryce Harper reached to begin the frame. But Rendon lined out, Juan Soto popped out on the first pitch and Mark Reynolds grounded out to squander the chance. Washington threatened again in the ninth inning after Daniel Murphy, whose balky knee left him available for only an emergency situation, walloped a pinch-hit double with the Nationals down to their last out. Eaton, however, flied out to end the game.
So after 17 runs and 18 hits Friday, Washington managed two runs and eight hits Saturday. Copious injuries and maddening underperformances might be to blame for the inconsistency. It is a concoction the Nationals believe will dissipate this summer. Track records and timetables suggest the odds are in their favor. They have 81 games to figure it out.