PHILADELPHIA — The Nationals’ coaching staff has analyzed the club’s first-inning woes, a recurring problem for this team through the season’s month-plus, trying to find a common theme or solution to the issue.
And in the end, they can’t find anything to explain why they keep digging themselves into these kind of early holes.
“No. We’ve gone over the whole thing, the amount of pitches that are thrown in the bullpen prior to the game, all the preparations,” manager Matt Williams said. “It’s just the way it’s been sometimes. Hopefully that’s out of our system now and we can go from here.”
It most definitely wasn’t out of their system Saturday night during a 7-2 drubbing at the hands of the Phillies. Tanner Roark became the latest member of the rotation to give up three runs in the first inning, setting the tone for a long and frustrating evening at Citizens Bank Park.
This was, remarkably, the eighth time in 30 games the Nationals have given up at least three runs in the first. Throw in some less-significant second-inning woes, and overall the Nationals have been outscored 51-20 in the game’s first two innings this season. They’ve then outscored the opposition 113-67 after that.
So, what’s to blame for this trend?
“A lot of times, when you’re going out there, you’ve got adrenaline going and you want to get through the first couple innings and then you tend to settle in,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “I think that’s for most everybody. Being a little amped up going out there first and overthrowing or whatever you want to call it, it tends to happen. A lot of times, starters, when they struggle, it’s early until they get into that good rhythm.
“We go out there and do everything we can to make sure they’re in that good rhythm. It just seems like at times, it’s hurt us, where we haven’t made the pitch when we have to. When we have two outs, got to make a pitch. And unfortunately, in a small ballpark, when you make a mistake it’s going to be magnified.”
That was the case Saturday night for Roark. The right-hander got himself into a quick jam in the bottom of the first, allowing a one-out single to Jimmy Rollins and then walking Chase Utley. Moments later, Ryan Howard mashed a pitch over the wall in left-center for the 3-run homer that put the Nationals in yet another early hole.
“I trying to get in and not leave it up,” Roark said of his fateful pitch to Howard. “Obviously I left it up. Live and learn.”
As well as he has pitched since arriving in the big leagues, Roark can be excused for one rough night. He wound up allowing a career-high seven runs in a career-low four innings of work.
“I know he’s better than that and can do better than that,” catcher Jose Lobaton said.
But it’s becoming difficult to excuse — or at least understand — why every member of the Nationals’ rotation has struggled at some point to get through a clean first inning.
The coaching staff doesn’t believe any change to the pregame routine is necessary. It’s simply up to the guys taking the mound to get their starts off on positive notes and not force their teammates to have to try to claw back every single night.
“It’s perplexing, but we’ve been down I think eight or nine games, three or more after the first, and come back in a lot of them,” Williams said. “But over the course of a season, you’re not going to be able to come back as much as you want to. Look at Tanner the last time out, he was great. This time, not so much. That’s the ebbs and flows of the game and pitching. Not much we can do about it now. Just look forward to the next one.”