Nationals reach the halfway point with a thud, falling to the Red Sox to tumble to 12-18

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But they didn’t, losing, 5-3, to the lowly Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. The Nationals left 14 men on base. They were 4 for 13 with runners in scoring position. Turner finished with two doubles, three singles and a run to go 5 for 5, notching five hits for the third time in his career. Yet a bunch of incomplete rallies — and five earned runs against starter Aníbal Sánchez — sunk them to 12-18.

Halfway through this shortened season, the Nationals remain in last place in the National League East. They’re still looking for a jolt.

“We still got a lot of games,” said Manager Dave Martinez, adding that his club was unlucky Saturday and had its 11 hits weighed down by a handful of hard outs. “At this point, nobody seems to be running away with it. We just got to get on a roll here. Win two or three out of four, come back and win two or three of four, and then we’ll be right back in this mess.”

Before the game, Washington signed utility man Brock Holt to a one-year contract. Holt, released by the Milwaukee Brewers this week, has spent seven of his nine major league seasons in Boston, where he became a fan favorite playing second, third, short, first, left, right and center. The Nationals were attracted to that versatility and getting another left-handed bat. To make room for Holt on the active roster, they optioned pitcher Ben Braymer to their alternate site in Fredericksburg, Va. And to make room on the 40-man roster, they put Starlin Castro (broken right wrist) on the 60-day injured list.

Holt was ineffective in Milwaukee, punching just three hits in 30 at-bats. None of them went for extra bases. In his first plate appearance with the Nationals, he represented the tying run in the ninth inning and struck out on three pitches. But by adding him now, the Nationals underscored their current reality: They’re begging for consistent offense. Their lineup is without Castro, they recently demoted Carter Kieboom, and they entered this shortened season down first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who opted out of playing because of concerns about the novel coronavirus.

For the first two games in Boston, Martinez toyed with the top of his order. He hit Juan Soto second. He bumped Adam Eaton down to sixth, then bumped him up to fifth. Martinez, like his club, is searching for something to work.

“It feels like we’ve played 175 games already, to be honest with you,” he said when asked about reaching the midway point. “It’s just one of those weird, weird years.”

That continued with Sánchez, who has been trudging through this summer. He had an 8.50 ERA through four outings. He bounced back in his previous one, against the Miami Marlins on Sunday, by yielding one run in seven innings. But the Red Sox jumped on him right away Saturday.

Alex Verdugo led off the first with a single. J.D. Martinez followed two batters later with a double, and then Xander Bogaerts clocked a high fastball over the wall in center. Boston added another run when Kevin Pillar started the second with a triple and Jackie Bradley Jr. tapped him in. In the fourth, after the Nationals closed the gap, Pillar stretched it again with a solo shot to left.

“All the time, for me, the key is working down,” Sánchez said. “As soon as I elevate the ball when I don’t want to, I pay the price.”

The score had tightened with a third-inning rally. Turner kindled it with his second hit, a double to the left field corner. From there, Soto reached on an infield single, Turner scored on a throwing error by starting pitcher Chris Mazza, Howie Kendrick singled in Soto, Asdrúbal Cabrera walked and Eaton scored Kendrick with a poke to center to make it 4-3.

That last at-bat justified one of Martinez’s tweaks. Eaton’s not a typical No. 5 hitter, meaning he has little power and, in turn, can’t “protect” the batters in front of him. But those traditional concepts aren’t backed by statistics. Martinez put him fifth because, when right, Eaton hits for contact and can score Soto, Kendrick or whoever else reaches in front of him.

It went as planned in the third. In the fourth, though, Eaton struck out looking with two on and two outs. In the sixth, he grounded into a double play to end another threat. The mixed results showed what Martinez is up against: Each change clicks for a moment, maybe even appears as a fix, until he has to keep fiddling. And the Nationals soon could run out of time.

They have 30 games left to climb the standings. They have less than two days before the trade deadline, and they may be less likely to buy from the depths of last place. But a 16-team playoff offers a persisting opportunity. Somehow, a .400 winning percentage hasn’t made that less true.

“Try to come to the ballpark every day with a good mind-set,” Turner said of righting a slow start, sounding how the Nationals did after cratering to 19-31 in 2019. “And don’t let anything snowball on you.”

It’s just that, on Saturday and across the first five weeks of this season, the mistakes came in bunches. The uneven offense stung the most. So did the runs Boston tacked onto Sánchez’s line. So did a questionable send by third base coach Chip Hale in the fifth, when Kurt Suzuki was thrown out by Verdugo to end the threat. Turner singled to left before Hale waved the slow-footed catcher around. A stop sign would have loaded the bases for Soto against a right-handed pitcher with two outs.

The Nationals haven’t won back-to-back games since Aug. 10 and 11. Sunday will bring their next chance. It would be a good idea to go 1-0.

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