The task laid before Washington Nationals acting general manager Mike Rizzo all season - make enough catch-up moves to piece together a respectable big league lineup - has been nearly impossible, the resources too scarce and the time too scant.
But Rizzo has gamely plugged away at the job, signing any veteran reliever with a live arm he can find and swinging deals aimed at smoothing out the deficiencies in the Nationals’ lineup.
There’s only so much scrap Rizzo could add to the Nationals’ roster, though, before the joints sprang loose and the optimistic additions stopped working. And Sunday, with an interim manager helming the Nationals to the fourth defeat in his four-game tenure in an 11-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs, the team had never looked more like a collection of interchangeable parts.
Garrett Mock, the starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter, disappointed in his first appearance in the rotation this year. Anderson Hernandez, who began the year as the starting second baseman, got time in left field as manager Jim Riggleman tinkered with the idea of making him a utility player. And Julian Tavarez, the offbeat swingman in the bullpen, got hit around for the last time before the Nationals removed him from their roster.
The result was as ugly as the piecemeal approach would dictate: an eight-run loss to the Cubs that capped a four-game sweep to start the second half of the season. It was the fifth straight loss overall for the Nationals (26-65) and fourth under Riggleman.
“We came out of the All-Star break trying to refocus, send a lot of messages and get some things organized,” Riggleman said. “Today was a step backwards - just a breakdown all the way around on the ballclub.”
Plenty of things went wrong for the Nationals in this one. Mock gave up seven runs in 3 1/3 innings. Only four of them were earned, three helped across the plate by a pair of Nationals errors in the fourth inning. Washington got just two runs off Cubs starter Kevin Hart.
But the fulcrum of the breakdown occurred with Tavarez on the mound in the fourth. He gave up three hits in two-thirds of an inning, allowing a pair of inherited runners to score and one of his own.
In a way, Tavarez was the ultimate chewing-gum-and-baling-wire addition, signed by Rizzo in spring training for the same reasons that have landed him jobs with 10 other teams: his versatility and willingness to accept different roles.
The move worked for a while - the 36-year-old had a 2.79 ERA in his first 12 appearances with the Nationals, even sliding briefly into the closer role and earning a save against the Phillies on April 29.
But he walked 24 batters in 25 1/3 innings after that, losing six games and, eventually, his spot on the roster. The Nationals called up Logan Kensing - another in-season addition - to take Tavarez’s place, making Joe Beimel the only member of the Nationals’ Opening Day bullpen still on the team.
“They made the right decision,” Tavarez said. “I just wish I would have done a better job - that we would have done a better job. I’m a professional. I just didn’t do my job.”
Sunday’s game might have slipped out of control with Tavarez on the mound, but Mock started it in that direction. Called up to replace Ross Detwiler in the rotation after going 5-1 with a 1.52 ERA in eight starts at Class AAA Syracuse, he never showed an ability to navigate the Cubs’ lineup.
Three of Chicago’s four hits in the first two innings were doubles, putting the Cubs up 1-0. The Nationals took a 2-1 lead after three, but the Cubs ripped the game open with seven runs in the fourth inning - a half hour-plus comedy routine that included two errors, two wild pitches and an Alfonso Soriano homer to left.
“I threw every one of my pitches for strikes today,” Mock said. “It’s just the one that didn’t work is the one that got hit. Just a couple fastballs that weren’t as far away or as far down as I wanted them. It’s the same story you’ve heard in a lot of places from a lot of pitchers - you’d just like to have that one pitch back.”
The Nationals will get back to plugging different pieces into the same holes Monday, when Kensing returns from Syracuse along with J.D. Martin, the one-time Indians first-round pick scheduled to make his first big league start.
But so far, the parts assembled under Riggleman have produced results that look a lot like the ones under Acta.
“Nobody’s going to give you a ballgame,” Riggleman said. “You take the field, and theoretically you can win 162 games or you can lose 162. You’ve got to fight to win a ballgame.”