But the Astros went after the Nats bullpen and tallied four runs in the frame, highlighted by a three-run homer off the bat of Alex Bregman as Houston evened the series with a 6-1 win.
Right-hander Shawn Kelley gave up the Bregman shot, his 11th homer allowed in 25 games this season.
Manager Dusty Baker explained what he saw from Kelley in the at-bat against Bregman.
“He’s missing location,” Baker said. “The homers kind of did us in tonight, but this is a club that hits homers.”
Baker reasoned that maybe Kelley still hasn’t returned to the form prior to the injuries when he did have his good stuff. But that hasn’t been this season unfortunately for Kelley. He allowed a homer in each of his first three appearances to begin April.
“He is coming back. He is a little rusty,” Baker said. “He missed location. He really didn’t have command of his fastball like he usually does. Hopefully, he’ll get it together here soon.”
Kelley missed nine games in May with a lower back strain. He went back on the disabled list from June 17 until Aug. 17, missing another 51 games. He believed that his rehab outings early in the month at Triple-A Syracuse were plenty of time to “work the rust off.” While with Syracuse, he allowed two homers in seven appearances.
“It’s definitely been up and down,” Kelley said. “I feel like I’ve still made a lot of good pitches and punched guys out and done things well at times, and then counteracted that every now and then with another homer. I don’t know, I don’t know any different, other than just going out there and continuing to do what I do. It worked for eight or nine seasons so far, so I’ll continue grinding at it.”
Jackson (4-3) was good, wiggling out of trouble a few times on his way to six innings, allowing two runs on six hits with three walks (one intentional) and one strikeout. He threw 95 pitches, 58 for strikes.
“He kept the ball down,” Baker said. “He had a good breaking ball tonight. He threw the ball well. His pitch count was relatively low till that one inning when they threatened but he got out of it.”
In the fourth inning, with the Nats up 1-0, Jose Altuve’s drive to the right-center gap looked like it was going to be caught by center fielder Michael A. Taylor. But Stevenson cut in front of Taylor to attempt the catch and could not. Altuve ended up at third base with a triple and later scored on a sacrifice fly by Josh Reddick, tying the game at 1-1.
“It wasn’t dropped. He kind of shielded Michael and the center fielder usually goes in front,” Baker said of Stevenson’s play. “Everybody else goes behind, but I don’t know if Michael had called it or called it late. That’s a tough play out there cause both of them could’ve caught it. That was an unfortunate thing that happened to us and happened to Jackson.”
Stevenson said many factors contributed to not being able to come up with the ball. One major factor was not hearing Taylor call him off.
“I haven’t played in too many domes in my career,” Stevenson said. “This one was especially loud. I just didn’t hear him. I’ve always been taught, if you don’t hear anything, just go for it. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him coming in, lost concentration on it, hit off my glove and that’s something we’re going to have to work with in the future - getting a feel for where he’s going to be and where I’m going to be.”
Jake Marisnick’s fifth-inning homer made it 2-1 Astros. Even with Matt Grace allowing a solo shot with two outs in the eighth to make it a 3-1 deficit, the Nats still felt like they had a shot to score two in the ninth if they could just get one more out. But Kelley surrendered a single, a walk and a three-run shot, and that was it.
The Nats had few scoring opportunities thanks to an outstanding pitching performance by Astros starter Mike Fiers (8-8). Fiers struck out six over seven innings, allowing one run on four hits with one walk. Baker watched as his club went after Fiers’ high strikes to no avail.
“They pitched us pretty tough,” Baker said. “Fiers was good and he threw more fastballs than we expected because we were told he threw a lot of off-speed stuff and changeups. But he was throwing his fastball up in the zone and his breaking ball and changeup down in the zone. We just didn’t catch up to him tonight.”
Stevenson had one of the Nats’ two extra-base hits, but acknowledged Fiers was hard to solve.
“He was just doing a good job mixing,” Stevenson said. “He had command of his stuff and kept us off-balance. His fastball kind of got on you a little quicker than 89-91 (mph) normally gets on you. He was in command of his stuff today.”
The 6-1 decision was the first win for the Astros over the Nationals since Aug. 6, 2012. With the series now even at one game apiece, Stephen Strasburg and Dallas Keuchel do battle in Thursday’s much anticipated rubber match.