ATLANTA - Tanner Roark pitched well, but not well enough to overcome some sloppy defense behind him, a lack of offense from his teammates and a bizarre wholesale lineup change by the Nationals in the eighth inning.
The end result was a 3-2 loss to the Braves, who thanks to R.A. Dickey’s pitching gem won the last of the 19 head-to-head matchups between these division opponents for 2017. (The Nats narrowly won the season series, 10-9.)
The Nationals trailed much of the night in this one, unable to sustain any kind of offensive attack against Dickey, the veteran knuckleballer who had them baffled throughout the contest.
“Tanner certainly pitched good enough to win,” manager Dusty Baker said. “We just didn’t get it done tonight. You have to give the nod to Dickey tonight, because he was good.”
Even when the Atlanta starter was out, the Nationals couldn’t muster a last-ditch rally in the ninth against Arodys Vizcaíno, who did not duplicate his three-bases-loaded-walk performance from Wednesday and instead finished off this victory with three straight strikeouts.
The final batter Vizcaíno faced was Jose Lobaton, the .152-hitting backup catcher who wasn’t supposed to be batting in the No. 3 spot but wound up there during the comically confusing lineup changes that occured prior to the bottom of the eighth.
Those convoluted changes - which included six substitutions - led to a lengthy delay as the umpiring crew tried to sort out just exactly how Baker’s new batting order was arranged, with multiple on-field visits by Braves manager Brian Snitker before everything was sorted out.
“We just had a miscommunication and screwed it up,” Baker said.
Roark’s night got off to a ragged start and perhaps foretold of how things would progress from there. Ender Inciarte led off with a line drive into the right field corner and hustled his way to third base for a triple. Moments later, Ryan Zimmerman couldn’t handle Ozzie Albies’ hard hopper to his right, with Inciarte scoring on the RBI single.
Roark got into trouble again in the fourth, and again it wasn’t entirely his fault. After Albies led off with a single, Matt Wieters’ attempted pickoff throw went horribly wrong. The ball sailed down the right field line and Albies coasted all the way to third base. That put him in position to score on Freddie Freeman’s sacrifice fly.
“It’s a bad throw, because I didn’t have a good grip,” Wieters said. “It’s one of those where as soon as I let it go, I knew I should’ve held onto it. It changed the whole complexion of the inning.”
And things only spiraled downward after that. Zimmerman couldn’t handle another tough-hop grounder, this time by Nick Markakis. The Nats first baseman threw his glove up into the air in frustration as the ball rolled into right field for a gift double. Markakis wound up scoring two batters later when Johan Camargo singled up the middle.
Add a fielding error by Trea Turner in the bottom of the fifth and a couple other less-than-crisply played balls by others in the field, and the Nationals found themselves in the middle of one of their sloppier games in a while.
“When little things happen, you can’t let that bother you and affect your pitching,” Roark said. “You’re out there on the mound, you’re in control of the game. Errors happen. I don’t make perfect pitches every time. Sometimes I hang one and they hit it over the fence. Errors happen. Stuff like that happens. You just worry about the next pitch.”
Roark still could have been rewarded for his efforts, but his teammates couldn’t muster up enough run support. Only two of the Nationals’ first 22 batters reached base against Dickey. And neither of them stayed on base for long.
Zimmerman led off the top of the second with a familiar sight: a home run. His laser down the left field line not only was his 34th of the season - a new career high - but it was his fourth this season off Dickey alone.
Turner later singled with two outs in the third, but he immediately was picked off by Dickey, ending that inning and sending the Nationals into a prolonged stretch of nonexistent production.
They finally did something in the top of the eighth, when Anthony Rendon doubled and eventually scored on Wieters’ two-out single (a much-needed clutch hit for the struggling catcher). But that’s all they could muster on a night when opportunities were few and far between against an ageless knuckleballer.
“I thought he threw some of his better knuckleballs that he’s thrown in a while,” Wieters said. “He threw some that were dancing pretty good. He’s always going to be tough, just because it’s an unconventional pitch. But tonight he threw some that were really dancing all over the place.”