WASHINGTON -- Nationals manager Dave Martinez has remained almost relentlessly positive during his brief tenure. Even in the face of a disappointing 2018 season when the club missed the postseason and even during the opening games of this season, he continued to remain upbeat and optimistic.
His tone was different on Wednesday afternoon, even after the Nats squeezed out an unlikely 9-8 walk-off victory, courtesy of three Phillies errors and a bases-loaded walk in the ninth inning drawn by Jake Noll. After watching the Nats run into outs on the bases, missing on bunt attempts and the bullpen blowing another lead late along with miscues on defense, Martinez called the win “bittersweet.”
“I'm not thrilled about how we're playing,” Martinez said. “I'm happy that the boys kept pushing, it's a testament to them, but we gotta start playing better. We worked all spring on doing the little things, and we gotta make it happen. The baserunning stuff has gotta go away. The defense, every day we gotta be clean. We're going to be good, but we can't play like that every day and expect to come back and win games. We can't.”
Martinez’s frustration comes after the Nationals spent all Spring Training working to improve on fundamentals. They preached endlessly that they would be better executing the “little things” such as baserunning and defense. And yet, Victor Robles ran into another out on the bases after a deke by Maikel Franco in the fourth. Wilmer Difo got himself picked off second base in the sixth inning. Robles couldn’t get down a bunt later in the inning.
“Those little things, we gotta get better,” he said. “We gotta get better.”
Martinez plans to discuss these issues with the team, which he thinks stems from players attempting to do too much. The first five games of the season have been far from clean for the Nats as they begin the year 2-3, saved by a pair of walk-off victories. They know they will need to be better to get through a competitive National League East.
“We’ll take the win, but we have a lot to improve on,” outfielder Adam Eaton said. “And I think it shows.”
Rosenthal looks to get going
The Nationals believed they had addressed their bullpen early on this offseason, seemingly getting ahead of what has become an annual issue in D.C. each summer. They made their two biggest relief additions in October, when they acquired Kyle Barraclough from the Marlins and signed Trevor Rosenthal after a strong showcase coming off Tommy John surgery. The Nats also signed Tony Sipp in Spring Training to round out the ‘pen as a lefty specialist.
Those additions have not worked out as intended to start the season. Those three relievers combined to give up four runs in the eighth inning on Wednesday, nearly giving away a game the Nationals commanded for most of the series finale. After the game, Martinez acknowledged he might use Rosenthal in some lower leverage situations for now to boost his confidence.
“I told him today, ‘You're a big part of our bullpen and you're going to help us win a lot of games,’” Martinez said. “So keep your head up. You're going to be right back out there soon.”
Rosenthal did not retire any of the seven batters he’s faced this season, surrendering four hits and three walks, while each scored runs. He has now given up at least one run without recording an out in four consecutive appearances, dating to before his Tommy John surgery in 2017.
Overall, Washington has allowed 14 runs in the eighth inning this season. There were four teams in the Majors who had yet to allow an eighth inning run entering Wednesday -- Kansas City, Miami, Tampa Bay and Toronto. The Royals allowed their first in a 7-6 loss to the Twins.
“The bullpen’s struggling, there’s no other way to put it,” Nats general manager Mike Rizzo said prior to the game. “We need to be more aggressive in the strike zone. We need to follow the game plan. We need to perform like the back of their baseball card says.
“We feel good about the skill set of them. Now we have to put the skill set into the performance and get the guys that we signed to perform like they’re supposed to.”
Soto breaks out
One of the main reasons the Nationals believed Juan Soto would not experience much letdown after his historic rookie season at the plate was because of his ability to make adjustments. He never got in any prolonged slumps last year because once the league thought they had him figured out, he quickly corrected that issue.
Martinez saw Soto swinging at more pitches out of the zone as he started the season 3-for-16 with just one walk and nine strikeouts. The skipper reminded him to be patient and be yourself. Soto responded by going 3-for-4 on Wednesday, including a three-run homer in the third inning.
“It's like Davey said, ‘Most of the bad pitches are balls,’” Soto said. “I start taking and they're not going to throw them anymore because they know it's a ball and I'm going to walk. I'm going to keep seeing the ball well and keep grinding.”
The Nationals will look to play spoiler in the Mets' home opener at 1:10 p.m. ET on Thursday afternoon to open a three-game set. Nats right-hander Stephen Strasburg (7-1 with a 2.37 ERA all-time at Citi Field) will square off against Noah Syndergaard in a rematch from Saturday's clash in D.C., when Strasburg struck out eight in six innings in a New York victory.