Nationals squander chances in loss to Braves, miss opportunity to gain on Phillies

At some point, the hunt for explanations about this Washington Nationals season becomes futile. With less than 50 games remaining, results begin to say it all. After their 8-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday night, a game in which an interim starter struggled, a budding star was ejected and they left 11 men on base, the Nationals remain six games in back of the National League East-leading Philadelphia Phillies. Every day they do not gain ground is a day they lose it.

Injuries contributed to their current circumstances, as Tommy Milone wouldn’t have started Wednesday’s game if Stephen Strasburg were healthy. Juan Soto’s controversial ejection might have contributed to their loss, though who knows what the teenager might have contributed had home plate umpire Greg Gibson not sent him away for publicly arguing balls and strikes.

The uncontrollables, those things baseball players train themselves to ignore in favor of those variables within their power, made things harder for the Nationals against the Braves. They have made things harder for them all season. But assessing this Nationals season — which is by no means over but is stalled, at best — requires distinguishing between explanations and excuses.

Injuries do not excuse the underperformance from key players at various points, the lulls from Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, the uncharacteristic stretches from Bryce Harper or the glaring lack of production from the catcher’s spot — all of which has left a team once thought to be a World Series contender hoping a win Thursday can help it salvage a series split with one of two teams ahead of it in its division.

But injuries do explain why Milone — a nonroster invitee to spring training who was probably 10th on the pitching depth chart among starters entering this season — ended up starting a game as important as Wednesday’s. The Phillies played earlier in the day and lost, which meant the Nationals had a chance to gain ground with a win.

If all were well — say, if Strasburg were healthy and pitching as his history suggests — a moment like that would not necessarily feel fatal. But Strasburg is not pitching, and as pleasantly surprising as Milone has been in his absence, he is not the man the Nationals invested $175 million in to pitch games like these.

Milone found himself in trouble in the second but worked into an 0-2 count with two outs against No. 8 hitter Charlie Culberson. Entering the day, four of Culberson’s seven homers had come against the Nationals, one of those fluky trends that weave in and out of the baseball season. Instead of walking Culberson to get to the pitcher, Milone challenged him 0-2.

By the end of that inning, five of Culberson’s eight home runs this season had come against the Nationals, and the Braves (62-49) had a 3-1 lead. Milone then surrendered two homers in the fourth inning that combined to travel more than 900 feet. Milone said later he didn’t think they were horrible pitches, that the Braves were just ready for them.

Decisions matter, too. With his team trailing 7-1 in a crucial game, Manager Dave Martinez chose to let Milone hit for himself with a man on first in the fifth. Milone had surrendered seven runs on nine hits by that time. The bullpen, somewhat depleted by Tuesday’s doubleheader but by no means sparse, seemed equipped to handle four innings. A pinch hitter could spark a rally. A new pitcher could prevent others. Martinez stuck with Milone and said later he had no choice.

“We needed length. . . . And I thought about [Thursday] and covering [Thursday], too,” said Martinez, alluding to the need to keep relievers fresh in case Gonzalez struggles again in the series finale. Underperformance changes the way teams plan, which changes the way managers manage, which changes games. Playing well, of course, solves many of these problems.

The Nationals only added one run that inning. They had left the bases loaded in the first. They would leave them loaded in the sixth and seventh, too, despite Harper’s 28th homer in the sixth.

A batter after Harper’s homer, Soto dug in and cameras caught him telling Gibson that the pitch on which he was called out in his last at-bat had been a ball. He did not swear. Gibson ejected him anyway and said through crew chief Jerry Layne that he did so because Soto argued in the previous at-bat, too.

“I didn’t think it was appropriate for him to throw him out in that situation like that,” Martinez said.

“I was more surprised,” said Soto, who said he had never been thrown out of a game in his life. “I didn’t think he was going to toss me out. I didn’t say anything.”

“It’s bad on both sides,” said Harper, who has been thrown out for arguing balls and strikes before. “I don’t know if Soto is the one to talk back, ’cause we do need him in the lineup.”

Unfavorable strike zones, much like injuries or unexpected ejections, affect and partially explain outcomes. Eventually they start to feel like excuses, too. The strike zone didn’t preclude the Nationals from generating chances. Their position players are all healthy now. The uncontrollables — like what the Phillies do, for example — were in their favor. They still did not win.

Such is the complicated business of assessing this Nationals season. Injuries and luck and umpiring and everything else explain only part of what has happened to this underachieving team. The question for those invested in their future, and those making the decisions about it, is whether anything excuses it.