Nationals lose again as 2023 auditions continue for fringe players

ATLANTA — With less than a month remaining in a season that has long been decided for the Washington Nationals, Manager Dave Martinez and his staff continue to evaluate their roster with an eye toward next year.

There’s a young nucleus that includes infielders CJ Abrams and Luis García and starting pitchers Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore and Cade Cavalli. And then there are less solidified players who are using these games to make a case for themselves. Cory Abbott, who started Monday’s 5-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, is one of those players.

Abbott has made seven starts since the trade deadline and been used as a bullpen arm as well for the Nationals (51-96). The right-hander’s performances have been up and down, and that trend continued against the Braves (92-55) with a three-run fourth inning.

“Started with the walk and then we throw a ball away,” Martinez said. “It just added up to three runs, but other than that, I thought [Abbott] threw the ball well.”

In the first inning, Abbott allowed a solo shot to Austin Riley to put the Nationals at a deficit they could not overcome. Riley’s hit looked like it might stay in the park, but leaping left fielder Alex Call couldn’t snag it.

Then in the fourth, Riley walked, Matt Olson doubled and Travis d’Arnaud and Michael Harris II hit back-to-back singles. Lane Thomas threw out d’Arnaud on Harris’s single, but Harris later advanced on a throwing error by Riley Adams and scored on a sacrifice fly by William Contreras. The Braves’ lead grew to 4-0. Abbott’s night ended after the fourth; he allowed six hits, two walks and the four runs without striking out any batters. Still, he took positives away from his outing.

“Just a little bit more around the strike zone than before,” Abbott said. “Less walks, should’ve only had one walk. So just kind of focusing on that and keep building.”

The Nationals cut into the Braves’ lead in the fifth inning. Ildemaro Vargas led off with a double down the line before Abrams singled to put runners on the corners with no one out. Victor Robles hit a sacrifice fly to score Vargas, then Call roped a two-out double that drove in Abrams to make the score 4-2.

Vargas, 31, signed a minor league contract with the Nationals in May, then reported to Class AAA Rochester before being called up at the trade deadline. He outplayed Maikel Franco and became the team’s everyday third baseman, making himself a possible utility player for the Nationals next season. Call, 27, was claimed off waivers Aug. 7, and Martinez said last week he’s “intrigued” by the former Cleveland Guardian.

And of course, there’s Joey Meneses, 30, who went 4 for 4 on Monday night and stole a base for the first time in his major league career.

Other players trying to prove themselves during this audition include catcher Riley Adams, 26, who has struggled for stretches at the plate and struck out twice Monday night, leaving four runners on base. There’s also Luke Voit, the team’s designated hitter, who could remain in that role next year — or be non-tendered. He finished Monday 0 for 4 with four strikeouts.

The Braves tacked on their final run in the seventh when Eddie Rosario hit a solo shot off Steve Cishek. Outside of the fourth inning, the Nationals’ offense couldn’t generate much offense.

There were some bright spots and some forgettable performances Monday, a few more data points that could factor into offseason decision-making.

“I like to way they’re playing, I really do,” Martinez said about his veterans. “I mean, they’re getting opportunities to play, they’re showing me some some things that I want to see, and they’re doing well. … We’re looking for players, right? Come spring training, these guys are making a good case for themselves.”

How is Keibert Ruiz doing? The young catcher was cleared to travel with the team to Atlanta after suffering a testicular contusion this month that will sideline him for the rest of the season. Martinez said Ruiz will continue to sit in meetings with the team’s current three catchers — Adams, Israel Pineda and Tres Barrera. Martinez said he hopes Ruiz will be able to do light workouts before the end of the season.

What’s the latest on Victor Arano? The right-hander played catch in Atlanta on Monday afternoon before the game, the first time he has thrown since Sept. 4, when he was placed on the 15-day injured list with a right shoulder strain. This is Arano’s second stint on the injured list this year after he was previously sidelined with left knee inflammation.

What’s next for MacKenzie Gore? The team wants the left-hander to throw 60 to 65 pitches, and around four innings, during his next rehab start. He’s scheduled to throw a bullpen session Tuesday in Atlanta before making another start in Rochester to build up toward full strength. The goal is for him to pitch for the Nationals before season’s end.

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