WASHINGTON -- As the Nats took the field for their post-All-Star break team workout, they all donned a red T-shirt with their number on the back and "Nationals" written instead of their last name. They were addressed by manager Dave Martinez, who told them to forget about their middling first
WASHINGTON -- As the Nats took the field for their post-All-Star break team workout, they all donned a red T-shirt with their number on the back and "Nationals" written instead of their last name. They were addressed by manager Dave Martinez, who told them to forget about their middling first half, where they scuffled to a .500 record. If they were going to climb back in the National League East race, they needed to do so together.
The start of the second half, however, looked similar to the first. The return of Stephen Strasburg from the disabled list was not enough to hold off the Braves in an 8-5 defeat in front of a sellout crowd on Friday night at Nationals Park.
Pitching for the first time in six weeks, Strasburg was not sharp on the mound. The Braves jumped him from the start, beginning the game with consecutive hits by Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ozzie Albies, who both came around to score. The Nats entered the game short a reliever by activating Ryan Zimmeman and counting on a deep start from Strasburg, but he lasted just 4 2/3 innings and gave up six runs on eight hits. After Strasburg was removed from the game, he engaged in a heated argument with Max Scherzer in the dugout before the two disappeared into the tunnel toward the clubhouse.
After the game, Strasburg and Scherzer met for about 15 minutes in Martinez's office to discuss the incident. Strasburg declined to give much insight into the situation saying, "You got to be in the family."
"This stuff happens," Martinez said. "I've been on teams where guys wanted to choke each other. It's a long season. They get it. They understand. We talk about it. I don't want to lose sleep about it. It was a really good conversation. I'll just leave it at that. Things are good."
This series will be an important one for the Nationals, a direct chance to make up ground against one of the teams ahead of them in the standings. Instead, the Nats once again fell below .500 as they continue to disappoint from their high expectations at the start of the year.
"The way I look at it, they want to take ownership," Martinez said. "I gather that's what it was about. They sat there and there's two guys that are very competitive, and they got heated up and that was it. Tomorrow, they'll be hugging probably and laughing and joking and we'll move on."
The Nats actually began playing with the kind of urgency they have been seeking, manufacturing a run on a double steal from Bryce Harper and Adam Eaton.
Matt Adams and Trea Turner added homers in the third and fifth, respectively, but right-hander Anibal Sanchez held Washington to just three runs in six innings with eight strikeouts. Juan Soto added a two-run homer in the eighth, but the Nats went quietly in the ninth.
Atlanta continues to prove its strong first half is no fluke despite its youth and inexperience. And after running away with the division title the past two seasons without much challenge, this season has been all but easy for the Nationals.
"We'll regroup and come back tomorrow focused, and hopefully win two in a row to win the series," Eaton said. "That should be our focus, is winning series. We're going to lose some games here and there, but if we keep winning series, we'll put our ourselves in a good position."
Eaton's steal of home in the first inning was the fourth in Nationals team history (2005-present), joining Ian Desmond ('11), Harper ('12) and Turner ('16).
Soto is the ninth teenager in the Live Ball Era to hit 10 home runs before turning 20 years old, according to ESPN Stats and Info. His 10 homers are tied for second among NL rookies.
HE SAID IT
"When you get a group of guys like we have that are very competitive, they want to win. They all want to win. We didn't give up. You can see that every day -- we don't give up. But at the end of the day, they want a W. So does everybody else. I just keep telling them, keep fighting. It's going to turn around. We scored five runs today. We couldn't hold them to less than that. We have another one tomorrow. We try to win that. We win that, we win the series." -- Martinez, on frustrations boiling over
Giovany Gonzalez takes the mound for the second of this three-game series at 7:05 p.m. ET on Saturday. His first half was uneven, but he finished strong in his final start before the break when he held the Pirates to two runs in six innings. He will match up against fellow left-hander Sean Newcomb.
Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.