- Associated Press - Friday, April 6, 2018

WASHINGTON (AP) - They’ve dropped three games in a row by a combined score of 28-9 and their aces, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, took the losses in the last two.

Their hot-as-can-be leadoff man, Adam Eaton, hurt his left ankle on an awkward slide. Their cleanup hitter, Ryan Zimmerman, is 3 for 22. Another middle-of-the-lineup batter, Daniel Murphy, is sidelined after offseason knee surgery.

If ever a team needed a day off just a week into the season, the Washington Nationals sure seemed to fit the bill on Friday.

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“Last three games, not so good. First four games, really good,” rookie manager Dave Martinez said. “They get a day off, they get refreshed, and then there’s a whole lot more baseball left.”

After opening 4-0, the two-time defending NL East champions are 4-3. First, the Nationals were beaten in Atlanta by scores of 13-6 and 7-1 (the latter with two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Scherzer on the mound). Then came an 8-2 drubbing against the New York Mets in Washington’s home opener Thursday (Strasburg started and allowed a pair of homers and balked in a run, before reliever Brandon Kintzler gave up a grand slam).

“I’d rather be playing good in October and September than in April, to be honest with you,” said Eaton, who left in the sixth inning Thursday after tweaking his ankle but thought he’d only need a day or two to recover. “We’ve played good in April - and we’ve seen how that ended.”

He was referring, of course, to the fact that the Nationals have fared just fine during the regular season in recent years and then flopped in the postseason, failing to win even one series.

They came into 2018 with a new skipper, but otherwise essentially the same roster and plenty of sky-high expectations.

“I think there are a few teams in our division that are significantly better than they were in the past. For those guys over there,” Zimmerman said about the Mets after going 0 for 4 with a strikeout Thursday, “it’s all about health. If they can stay healthy, they are a really good team. The Braves are obviously getting better. The Phillies have some young talent. I don’t think anyone in this locker room thinks that we have anything (wrapped up). All of us have been around long enough to know that you have to go out there and win. Nothing is given to you.”

Fairly or not, the first baseman is going to be a focal point because of his unusual approach to spring training, taking only two at-bats in Grapefruit League games while instead working on back fields and facing minor league pitching.

So far, he has twice has many strikeouts as hits.

“Spring training is over. I’d rather not talk about that whole thing anymore. You guys can write about it, if you want,” Zimmerman said. “My body feels great. I think that was the ultimate goal.”

Martinez described himself as “very committed” to keeping Zimmerman in the No. 4 spot in the lineup, behind Bryce Harper.

“His at-bats haven’t been bad,” the manager said.

It’s not clear how long the heart of the order will be without Murphy, who’s been one of the best hitters in the NL the past two seasons with Washington.

When the Nationals resume with what’s scheduled to be a game Saturday against the Mets - the forecast calls for rain or snow - they’ll have Gio Gonzalez on the mound. Thanks to Friday’s respite, there should be a fully available and rested bullpen.

“You go through those ups and downs. Obviously, you want to play consistent baseball. You don’t want to win four in a row then lose three in a row,” said shortstop Trea Turner, whose ejection Thursday after arguing balls and strikes was the first of his career. “You kind of would like to have a steady climb.”


More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

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