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Nationals limp into Dodger Stadium with NL East looking like a dud

Nationals limp into Dodger Stadium with NL East looking like a dud
Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez argues a call with umpire CB Bucknor during a game against the Milwaukee Brewers on May 7 at Miller Park. (Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

Mike Foltynewicz stuffed his hands inside the pockets of an Atlanta Braves hoodie. Inside the pin-drop quiet of the visitors clubhouse at Dodger Stadium, the rest of his teammates packed up to prepare for another series. Swept by the Dodgers, the Braves exited Wednesday night in the same position as three other teams in the National League East: owners of a losing record.

“It’s a long season,” Foltynewicz said. “Just got to keep battling.”

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The season is, indeed, lengthy. But nearly a quarter of the 162-game marathon has been completed, and the once-trumpeted division appears to contain more dysfunction than dynamism, with the Braves, New York Mets and Washington Nationals all playing below expectations.

Over the winter, it was easy to dream about a four-team race for first place, with the Miami Marlins tanking as usual. Yet even with outfielder Bryce Harper in a slump, the Philadelphia Phillies have extended their lead over the pack. The three other contenders are all in various stages of disrepair.

The Braves are treading water. The Mets are sinking. And the Nationals will face the Dodgers on Thursday in the midst of a collapse, eight games below .500 for the first time since 2011.

For the Braves, regression was expected. The team arrived ahead of schedule when they won 92 games in 2018, but made few additions this winter, outside of a one-year contract for former American League MVP Josh Donaldson. A spate of injuries to their pitching staff has tested their depth.

The Dodgers exposed Atlanta across three games at Chavez Ravine this week. His team outscored by a 23-7 margin during the sweep, Braves manager Brian Snitker chuckled when asked about the Dodgers offense.

“You can’t walk, guys, you’ve got to make all the plays, you’ve got to hit spots, you’ve got to keep the ball out of the middle of the plate,” Snitker said. “They’re a very deep, talented team.”

Fortunately for Snitker, his division will be far easier to navigate.

The New York Mets projected an aura of transformation after hiring former agent Brodie Van Wagenen to run their baseball operations department this winter. Van Wagenen made waves by trading two top prospects to the Seattle Mariners for closer Edwin Diaz, one of baseball’s best relievers, and second baseman Robinson Cano. He dropped $30 million on reliever Jeurys Familia, $20 million on Jed Lowrie and $19 million on catcher Wilson Ramos.

The first month has not been kind to the new faces. Diaz has regressed, ever so slightly. Cano carried a .707 on-base plus slugging percentage after Wednesday. Familia was nursing a sore shoulder and a 6.28 earned-run average. An injured knee has kept Lowrie from playing a single inning. Ramos had a .577 OPS.

The flops coincided with stumbles from the two leaders of the starting rotation. Jacob deGrom posted a 4.85 ERA in April, while Noah Syndergaard’s ERA resides at 5.14. Facing San Diego on Monday, deGrom received zero run support across seven sterling innings. The offense managed four hits against Padres rookie Chris Paddack; deGrom provided one of those.

“We’ll be all right,” deGrom said. “Long season. You’re not going to win all of them.”

Not even breakout campaigns from young hitters Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil can keep the offense afloat. Alonso delivered a titanic homer in the ninth inning of a victory Tuesday. The next afternoon, the offense went quiet as the Padres captured the series. Manager Mickey Callaway described the proceedings as “just not acceptable.”

“This game is definitely a game of failure,” Alonso said. “The highs are the best feeling in the world. The lows, they’re really low.”

The Nationals can relate. The franchise never ventured beyond the first round of the playoffs during Harper’s tenure. The organization has cycled through four managers in the last seven seasons. The decision to fire Dusty Baker after the 2017 season, when Baker led the team to its second consecutive division title, and replace him with Dave Martinez has been disastrous.

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The Nationals missed the playoffs in 2018, and the security of Martinez’s job will be a topic of speculation this summer. One deck chair was rearranged last week when the Nationals fired pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. Washington entered Wednesday’s games with the second-worst ERA in the National League, better only than the Colorado Rockies, despite a pitching staff that includes ace Max Scherzer, three-time All-Star Stephen Strasburg and two-time All-Star closer Sean Doolittle.

The collection of brittle hitters in the lineup has already begun to break down. The Nationals will open the series Thursday without shortstop Trea Turner and outfielder Juan Soto, who are marooned on the injured list along with two first basemen, Matt Adams and Ryan Zimmerman.

Swept by the Milwaukee Brewers this week, the Nationals have dropped five of six games on the trip that brings them to Los Angeles. Martinez projects optimism whenever possible, and he tried to strike that tone Wednesday in Milwaukee.

“Every day is different,” he told reporters before the series finale at Miller Park. “This game is different. We’re here today, so for me, let’s go 1-0 today and not worry about what’s happened in the past, because you can’t do nothing about it anyway.”

The Nationals did not go 1-0 on Wednesday. They went 0-1, which made them 0-3 in Milwaukee, 2-6 for the month and 14-22 for the season.

Responsibility for the latest defeat rested on the shoulders of pitcher Jeremy Hellickson. He gave up six runs in three innings at Miller Park. He delivered the loser’s lament afterward.

“Just forget about it, and move on,” Hellickson said. “It’s a long season.”

It is. But sometimes, it gets late early.

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