WASHINGTON -- Cheers emerged from different sections of the Nationals' clubhouse early on Wednesday afternoon when the Red Sox took a ninth-inning lead over the Braves en route to Boston completing a sweep of the National League East leaders. For a team clinging to faint postseason hopes, any sort of opening can be something to latch onto for a chance to stage a late-season comeback.
When the Nationals look back and review this season gone wrong, they are likely to look at the past few weeks and lament their missed opportunity. Both the Braves and Phillies -- the two teams ahead of them in the standings in the NL East -- have been playing under .500 for the past three weeks. Washington hasn't taken advantage, however, and is one game under .500 during the same span, including Wednesday's 7-6 loss to the Cardinals at Nationals Park.
The Nats fell behind, 7-1, on Wednesday night, only to rally back and eventually cut the deficit to one run entering the ninth inning. But Washington's comeback attempt fell short in defeat, dropping the Nationals to two games under .500 at 69-71.
"If you're talking about what-ifs, you're going to be thinking a lot about a lot of stuff," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "You just come here and try to win the game that day. Every year is different. Just concentrate on the day. Obviously, [the Braves and Phillies] haven't been playing great, but we haven't won either."
The Nats haven't won, or at least as consistently as they hoped they would at the start of the year. Despite this disappointing 2018 season, general manager Mike Rizzo threw his support behind manager Dave Martinez prior to the game, saying he "hasn't considered" a scenario where Martinez wouldn't be back in '19 as the club's manager. Part of the reason for that support is because of the team's resiliency, which has continued as it has faded further away from postseason contention, even on nights like Wednesday when it fell behind early.
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Three batters into the game, the Cardinals had ambushed Washington starter Tanner Roark with a pair of singles and a three-run home run from Matt Adams, who was claimed off waivers by St. Louis from the Nats on Aug. 21. A pair of defensive miscues from Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper led to a pair of runs in the second inning and forced Roark's pitch count much higher than it should have been. When Adams crushed his second home run into the second deck in right field in the fifth inning, St. Louis extended its lead to 6-0. Roark was charged with six runs on 10 hits through five innings.
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"I felt like I executed pretty well," Roark said. "They were just falling in. There's nothing much I can do about that."
The Nationals began to mount their comeback with a four-run seventh inning, which was highlighted by Zimmerman's three-run double off the center-field wall. Zimmerman would later score on a single from Wilmer Difo. That cut the Cardinals' lead to one, and the Nationals got the first two batters of the ninth inning on, but they could not take advantage of their opportunity, a theme that has become all too common this season.
"We got to kind of finish those comebacks," Martinez said. "We really do. They jump out to a five-run lead in the first two innings, our guys don't quit, but it's tough to do the same thing every day. We could have scored early, too, to make it a lot easier, but we didn't. We just got to keep battling. They're playing with a lot of heart, which I like. A lot of intensity, lot of energy."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Taylor's K ends game: The Nationals put the tying run in scoring position and go-ahead run on base in the ninth inning. Michael A. Taylor came off the bench as a pinch-hitter for catcher Pedro Severino with two outs and runners on first and second, but Carlos Martinez got Taylor to chase two sliders outside the strike zone after falling behind in the count, 2-0, including strike three.
"It's tough, but it's part of it," Martinez said. "When you're called upon, you've got to just do your best, and he did his best, 3-2 slider with that guy is tough."
HE SAID IT
"I'm proud of the way we reacted to the season. Everybody's frustrated and disappointed in how things have gone thus far. I think that they all hold their head high in the clubhouse. It's a good group of guys that like playing together and like being here and have persevered through some tough times." -- Rizzo, on the Nationals' resiliency
"It's good for us to fight. I mean, I think it shows the character of the guys here. It would be real easy to roll over and quit when you're down what we're down a lot of the time, 7-2, 6-1, things like that. But I mean I think we play all nine innings. We're going to give professional at-bats until the last out's made. But as far as taking positives from it, it's still a loss." -- Zimmerman, on another failed comeback attempt
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Victor Robles, Washington's top prospect and No. 5 in all of baseball according to MLB Pipeline, showed off his blazing speed to attempt to score from first on a double by Adam Eaton in the fifth inning. Robles reached a top sprint speed of 29.5 feet per second, according to Statcast™, as he dashed around the bases, but he was ruled out at home. The Nationals challenged the play, however, and the call on the field was overturned to give Washington its first run of the night.
Then in the seventh, after Zimmerman drove in three with his double, Difo got the Nationals within one run on a single to center field. Harrison Bader made it a close play, though, unleashing a 99.2-mph throw, according to Statcast™, from center field to Yadier Molina, whose tag was just late on Zimmerman. St. Louis challenged the call, which was confirmed.
The Nationals welcome the Cubs to Nationals Park on Thursday night for the start of a four-game series. Stephen Strasburg will be on the mound for the first time against Chicago since he torched them during the NL Division Series last October. Strasburg started Games 1 and 4 of the series and did not allow an earned run in 14 innings with 22 strikeouts and three walks. Kyle Hendricks, who also started Game 1 of that series, will be on the mound for the Cubs. First pitch is at 7:05 p.m. ET.