SAN FRANCISCO - The details of the Nationals’ 4-2 loss to the Giants tonight contained some familiar events. Squandered opportunities with runners in scoring position. An ill-advised play in the field. Decisive runs scored off the middle of the bullpen.
Adding to the dismay of the Nats’ third straight loss, though, was the departure of Shawn Kelley with the latest in his long string of elbow injuries and the overt frustration voiced by Gio Gonzalez after getting pulled by manager Davey Martinez moments before Kelley gave up the game-winning homer on what proved to be a less-than-perfectly healthy elbow.
“It sucks, because I want to be out there,” said Gonzalez, who was pulled by Martinez after issuing a leadoff walk in the sixth, his pitch count at 94. “I want to be the one pitching, giving Shawn that extra rest or that time to get ready. That’s my job. I’m a starting pitcher. If I could go perfect every game, I would. But right now, sometimes I’ve got to hit some walls to break through. Apparently, I’ve just got to some way, somehow convince I can go past five innings.”
There were other factors that led Martinez to make the decision to pull Gonzalez at that moment, earlier events that helped drive up his pitch count and a squandered opportunity at the plate to take the lead.
But by the time the bottom of the sixth rolled around, Martinez decided the leash on Gonzalez needed to be a short one.
“One guy on, he was coming out of the game,” the first-year manager said. “He gave us a chance to win the game. He pitched well.”
As they have done with some regularity this month, the Nationals took an early lead on the road, getting a one-out triple from Trea Turner and a sacrifice fly from Howie Kendrick to go up 1-0 in the top of the third.
But as has also been the case with regularity, they struggled to add to that early lead, squandering one golden opportunity in the sixth when back-to-back Giants errors put runners on second and third with one out. Presented that opportunity, Matt Adams struck out on a 3-2 changeup and Matt Wieters lofted a fly ball to center to end the inning with both runners stranded in scoring position.
“It’s tough; I haven’t been doing my job with runners in scoring position with less than two outs,” said Adams, now batting .194 for the season. “So you tell me. It’s pretty frustrating. Working hard to play the game, every day trying to get my swing to where it needs to be. And just got the count to 3-2 and chased a bad pitch.”
“That was the big turning point of the game,” Martinez said. “If that happens, we do something different in the bullpen. And unfortunately, we didn’t knock those runs in.”
Gonzalez didn’t make many mistakes during his five-plus innings on the mound, but the left-hander gave up just enough to depart with the opposition ahead. A walk, a double and a fielder’s choice - Wilmer Difo tried to make a difficult throw from third to the plate and wound up well off-target, a choice Martinez criticized afterward - gave the Giants a run in the fourth. A two-out rally featuring an Andrew McCutchen double and a Buster Posey RBI single brought home the go-ahead run in the fifth.
The big disaster struck in the bottom of the sixth, after Gonzalez’s leadoff walk of Brandon Belt ended his night with a disgruntled handing of the ball to his skipper. Kelley, who hadn’t appeared in a game in a week but did warm up in the bullpen a few times along the way, threw a waist-high, 89 mph fastball over the plate to Mac Williamson, who proceeded to send the ball on a 464-foot journey into the right-center field bleachers.
That blast, the third homer surrendered by Kelley to the last 15 batters he has faced, put the Nationals in a 4-1 hole. Three pitches later, though, the reliever spiked a ball well short of the batter’s circle and received an immediate visit from director of athletic training Paul Lessard. After a brief conversation, both departed for the dugout.
“He went in and his first pitch was 86,” Martinez said, offering up a different velocity reading than MLB’s official system produced. “We couldn’t figure out what it was. Did he throw a slider, a bad slider, or what? And then the next pitch was just as bad, and I told (pitching coach Derek Lilliquist): ‘Something’s wrong.’ And then finally we went out there and he said he was hurting.”
Kelley, who has endured through two Tommy John surgeries, bone chips and other assorted elbow ailments, was diagnosed tonight with ulnar nerve irritation. It’s a similar diagnosis (and sensation in his arm) that he received during the 2016 National League Division Series.
That’s both an encouraging and a discouraging development.
“It’s similar,” Kelley said. “A nerve gets aggravated sometimes. But usually, it’s (from) overusing; I can point to something like overuse, or range of motion or something. I felt really good this year so far. Everything’s been good. So to all of a sudden come out and not be clicking right and not be working, is a little frustration. But it doesn’t seem to be anything super serious. I need it to calm down for a couple days.”
The Nationals will re-evaluate Kelley on Tuesday, but Martinez said a trip to the disabled list is likely, forcing the club to make yet another adjustment to a roster that seems to be going through changes on a daily basis right now.