- - Thursday, March 28, 2019


In the season within the season — the season that the Washington Nationals can’t afford to lose — they lost their first game Thursday 2-0 to Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets before a sold-out crowd at Nationals Park who probably felt like they never left last year.

The season at stake are the 55 games the Nationals play against their three competing division rivals in the National League East — the Mets, the Bryce Harper-led Philadelphia Phillies and the defending division champion Atlanta Braves. The Miami Marlins are not expected to compete.

That season is a much shorter season than the 162-game schedule that may make one loss on March 28 insignificant. This loss looms larger, because if the NL East is going to be as competitive as everyone believes among the Nationals, Phillies, Braves and Mets, a loss to any of them carries the weight of lost opportunities.

Lost opportunities — the theme of Washington’s 82-80 season last year.

It was opening day 2019, but the game had a 2018 Nationals feel to it with base-running blunders, backfiring bullpen moves and a fundamentally-flawed performance.

“I think we played well,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said.

But after nearly two months of spring training in West Palm Beach preaching the gospel of smarter base running, better fundamentals and not giving away outs, to lose like the Nationals did Thursday afternoon is not playing well. It is the opposite of that.

It was one particular moment that would have served as an instructional video during their spring sessions on what not to do — the opposite of sound fundamentals.

Rookie center fielder Victor Robles electrified the crowd with a leadoff double in the bottom of the third inning, with Washington down 1-0 on a first-inning solo home by New York’s Robinson Cano. He moved to third on a single by Adam Eaton. There was nobody out, with the heart of the order coming up. deGrom, for a brief moment, was on the ropes.

But then Trea Turner, who had two hits and three stolen bases, turned in a woeful at bat, going down swinging wildly at some bad pitches when a simple ball in play would have likely brought Robles home. “Might have been the difference in the game,” Turner told reporters later.

Might have been, but then Robles won that distinction by getting caught off third base on a ground ball to third by Anthony Rendon, with Robles tagged out in a rundown between third and home in a double play to end the inning.

“It was a young base running mistake by him,” Martinez said. “I think he kind of froze a little bit and tried to go back.” Robles later said that he “got a little confused.”

The way deGrom was pitching — no runs in six innings pitched, with 10 strikeouts and just one walk — the opportunity was lost, like it had been so many times last season in close games for Washington.

This seemed to be the entire point of this past spring training for the Nationals. “We need to be a better base-running team,” Martinez preached throughout the spring.

It was a bad look, and it certainly felt like a loss with more weight than simply an opening day defeat.

It wasted a fine pitching performance by Nationals starter Max Scherzer in a duel between Cy Young winners. Scherzer set a franchise opening day record by striking out 12 over 7 2/3 innings, while walking three and allowing just two hits, leading to the two New York runs.

“Max was Max,” said Martinez, whose moves to Justin Miller and Matt Grace out of the bullpen in the eighth led to the Mets second run of the game. “Our defense was good. A lot more baseball to go. I’m proud of the way we went out and played today. The hits are going to come. We’ll score runs. No doubt.”

No doubt it was a bad start to the season, with the manager having to explain the same mistakes that plagued the team last year and that they believed they had fixed this spring. Maybe it’s just one game. But it was one game in that short division-rival season that will decide the winner of the NL East. It will also likely decide which managers among those division rivals will keep their jobs.

• Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.

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