Wed, October 27, 2021


Nationals growing pains endure in extra-innings defeat

WASHINGTON - There are unavoidable realities for these Washington Nationals, a team stripped down to two everyday major leaguers - Juan Soto and Josh Bell - surrounded by rookies, recent rookies and veterans hanging on.

One reality is that most late-game matchups will favor a contending club such as the New York Mets, who are visiting for five games at Nationals Park between Friday and Monday. Another is that growing pains will be far more frequent than wins, shown on the mound, at the plate, on defense and the base paths, night after night.

But for a moment Friday, in a nod to September games of the past, that was lost on those watching the Nationals erase a two-run deficit in the ninth inning. Then the feelings returned when, in the 10th, the Mets buried Washington with four runs and three hits off Austin Voth. The final was a 6-2 loss for the Nationals, delayed by a quick-passing spark. The Nationals couldn't even score their automatic runner in the bottom half.

Before the ninth, and well before Voth struggled in extras, the Nationals (55-78) put the rough side of their rebuild on display. Dropping games is one thing, an expected side effect of trading eight veterans at the deadline. But repeated mental mistakes, while part of that process, too, are both grating for the fan base, coaching staff and front office and avoidable for inexperienced players. Their sixth straight defeat, half of them to the Mets, brought a few examples.

In the first inning, Lane Thomas, a 26-year-old center fielder, poked a leadoff single off Mets starter Rich Hill to stir the offense. A batter later, Alcides Escobar lifted a liner to the right-center gap and Thomas sprinted past second, thinking it would drop. When it didn't, Thomas, a speedy runner, made it back to first without a throw. But he didn't retouch second on his way back, leading to a double play. Thomas did later redeem himself with a highlight-reel sliding catch in the left-center gap.

In the top of the third, Pete Alonso skied a flyball to right field and Soto chased it. Soto, 22, dropped his head and dug through the grass, bearing toward a spot by the foul line. But his route was indirect and a triple fell just out of his reach, helping the Mets to their second run

In the bottom of the third, Luis García, 21, ripped a double to right to begin the inning. Nationals starter Sean Nolin attempted a sacrifice bunt and popped it right to a charging-in Hill. Then García leaked away from second, perhaps thinking steal, while Hill spun and picked him off, erasing a runner in scoring position.

Earlier Friday, the Nationals placed Kyle McGowin on the 10-day injured list with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The move made room for closer Kyle Finnegan to return from the paternity list. But the diagnosis is troubling for McGowin, who missed parts of July and August with elbow inflammation. Full and partial tears of the UCL often lead to Tommy John surgery. The Nationals have sent McGowin's results to a specialist for a second opinion.

As the bullpen kept churning, Nolin threw 102 pitches in five innings, yielding two runs on five hits. Reliever Patrick Murphy worked two scoreless behind him, striking out five. Sam Clay and Ryne Harper kept it tight with a spotless eighth and ninth, respectively. And the offense, stunted by itself early on, did briefly click before the rest slipped away.

Soto crushed a 97-mph fastball, the first pitch of the ninth inning, to the first row inside the left field foul pole. Diaz recovered, if only for a moment, striking out Bell before walking Ryan Zimmerman on four pitches. Andrew Stevenson subbed in to run for Zimmerman. Adams followed with an RBI double, reaching for the fourth time, made possible by Brandon Nimmo diving in right-center instead of blocking the ball. Stevenson touched the plat after colliding with Chance Sisco, the Mets' catcher, while the home crowd roared.

But the energy was fleeting. It was, coincidentally, the two-year anniversary of the Nationals staging a six-run, ninth-inning comeback to beat Diaz and the Mets. You may remember Kurt Suzuki crushing a three-run, walk-off homer and throwing his hands in the air. You may also remember the World Series title that followed about two months later. This time, though, the Nationals revived a lost game, making a few peeps of noise, before Voth was all too hittable.

Published : September 04, 2021