Following a big win over the Cubs in an all-around eventful day for the Nationals on Wednesday, Washington kicked off Thursday afternoon's series finale in one of the best ways possible.
With two outs in the top of the first inning, first baseman Josh Bell went deep off Chicago starter Trevor Williams, hitting a solo shot in his first at-bat against his old Pirates teammate. Two pitches later, left fielder Kyle Schwarber -- finishing off his first series at Wrigley Field as a visitor -- took a 1-0 fastball out to left field, giving Nationals starter Joe Ross a two-run lead before he even threw a pitch.
From there, though, things went south.
Ross lasted a season-low 3 2/3 innings before he was removed by manager Dave Martinez. Starlin Castro -- who singled in his first at-bat following Schwarber’s home run -- made two errors at third, the first of which extended the third inning and allowed Cubs center fielder Ian Happ to hit a go-ahead two-run shot off Ross in Washington’s 5-2 loss to Chicago.
“Two big homers to start the top of the first. I thought we were gonna get something going and continue to keep going, and then the bats went dormant,” Martinez said. “... We've got to continue to push. Keep going, stay positive and hopefully we get big hits. I mean, that's the key. You get a couple guys on base and get that big hit.”
If it helps illustrate a lackluster day for the Nationals, Washington’s Twitter account didn’t have a single highlight to tweet out between Schwarber’s home run and the final score. The Nats mustered just three hits from the second through ninth innings, and they left five runners on base as they took their fourth series loss since the calendar shifted to May.
“We've done that quite a bit,” Martinez said. “If one of these times, we got bases loaded [and] we get a base hit [or] we get a man on second [and] somebody hits a home run, things [can] start clicking.”
Ross managed to throw 52 of his 78 pitches for strikes, and he said he felt particularly good about his slider. He was confident in the pitch enough to throw Cubs shortstop Javier Báez four straight sliders to start off his third-inning at-bat before going with the four-seamer on the fifth pitch. Ross went back to the slider that stayed low for the sixth pitch, but it didn’t move off the plate outside. Báez -- who has a knack for hitting balls low and away -- shot the pitch to Castro at third, who couldn’t come up with the inning-ending grounder.
The next man up was Happ. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Ross left a changeup over the middle of the plate, and Happ launched it over the right-field wall to put the Cubs ahead for good.
The pitches were two in a recurring theme for the Nationals pitcher’s quick outing, where if he couldn’t quite hit his spot, the Cubs were able to put the bat on the ball.
“Just kind of caught a little bit too much [of the] plate,” Ross said of the pitch to Happ. “I think it was trying to be down and away, [but] it was more middle-away. And then [he] just poked it out there to right field, and the ball was traveling pretty well today. So [it was] unfortunate, especially with two outs there after the error, but I felt good about the pitch. Obviously [I] would hope the results were different, but I felt good about it.”
Now 40 games into the season, the Nationals sit last in the National League East with a 17-23 record. They are actually a game ahead of where they were through 40 games in their 2019 World Series title-winning season, so hope for a turnaround is still there. But after finishing the road trip 3-4 despite taking two of three from Arizona, Washington is still searching for solutions to get back on track.
“I really thought we were gonna break through,” Martinez said. “We started the road trip off with a bang, but I mean, we've run into some tough luck, we really have. We've had some days where we hit the ball really hard and had nothing to show for it. … I just gotta praise the boys and tell them to keep going. They'll fall. They'll find holes. Just keep swinging the bats.”