WASHINGTON -- To understand how the star-studded Nationals fell from first place in the National League East to .500 in the span of about three weeks, one would only need to watch the fifth inning of Washington's 11-4 loss to the Red Sox on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.Tanner Roark
WASHINGTON -- To understand how the star-studded Nationals fell from first place in the National League East to .500 in the span of about three weeks, one would only need to watch the fifth inning of Washington's 11-4 loss to the Red Sox on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.
Tanner Roark allowed six runs in the top of the frame. Then, the Nationals loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the inning, but Michael A. Taylor struck out.
Starting pitching depth and the inability to capitalize with runners on base have been the main factors for the Nationals losing 16 of their past 21 games and sitting at .500 for the first time since May 5, when they were 17-17. Washington, which has won the division three of the past four years, is seven games behind the Braves in the NL East.
"Our starting pitching right now is not giving our offense a chance," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "When we do try to make a run and come back, we've got to have shutdown innings. That's not happening. If these guys would give our lineup a chance, we'll start winning some games because we are playing better."
When the Nationals were last .500, they seemed to still be adjusting behind first-year manager Dave Martinez and with Daniel Murphy, Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon and Brian Goodwin injured. Those players have returned, though Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg are now sidelined.
By June 9, Washington appeared to transform into the playoff contender it was expected to be. It was a season-best 11 games over .500 and in first place in the NL East. Since then, the Nationals have been one of the worst teams in the league. Max Scherzer has been the team's only consistent starter. Bryce Harper has been mired in perhaps the worst slump of his career. The Nationals have been shut out six times and lost six one-run games since June 9.
On Tuesday, the Nationals matched Boston with 12 hits, but Washington stranded nine runners on base. The Nationals' offensive production came in the fourth inning, when they rattled off four hits to plate two runs, and off Pedro Severino and Goodwin's solo homers in the sixth and ninth innings, respectively.
"It seems like we're playing uphill the past couple of nights," Mark Reynolds said. "We put too much pressure on our pitching staff sometimes. It's easy for these guys to go out and pitch with a lead, and we haven't been giving it to them, and it's a little frustrating. We've got the talent, it's just a matter of everyone putting some ABs [together]."
Roark continued his struggles from June, when he pitched to a 6.08 ERA, by allowing nine runs, including two home runs, over seven innings. The Nationals bolstered their bullpen by trading for Kelvin Herrera in June, but they've rarely been able to use their strong late-inning arms.
"This is one of the more talented teams I've ever been on, and everyone goes through it," Reynolds said. "... But we've got a lot of baseball left. Everyone says it, but we do. Anything can happen, and I'm confident with the people in this room that we'll be just fine."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
After already allowing three runs in the fifth inning and recording just one out, Roark threw a 2-2 changeup to Xander Bogaerts, who turned on it for a two-run homer to give the Red Sox a seven-run lead. Roark turned to watch the ball sail over the center-field wall and stared into the air for about five seconds, possibly processing the uphill climb ahead of the Nats' offense.
"That's the best I've felt in a long time," Roark said. "So other than two pitches, I feel like they base-hit me to death. What are you going to do?"
Roark is the first pitcher in a decade to pitch at least seven innings while allowing at least nine earned runs. Hall of Famer Greg Maddux was the last to do so on April 18, 2008, when he was pitching for the Padres.
The Nationals will continue their annual tradition of celebrating 4th of July in the nation's capital against the Red Sox at 11:05 a.m. ET Wednesday at Nationals Park. The Nationals are 4-2 in 4th of July games since the practice began in 2012, and they'll try to avoid being swept by Boston in their three-game series and falling below .500. Erick Fedde will take the mound after picking up his first career win on Friday against the Phillies and will counter Eduardo Rodriguez.
Kyle Melnick is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington.