If the Nationals intend to scrap their way back from a ragged start to their season, they’re going to have to do so playing smart, fundamentally sound baseball.
They certainly didn’t do that today during a 6-5 loss to the Rockies that easily could have tilted in their direction had they simply not made a handful of drastic mistakes at critical moments.
And because of all that, they now head to New York for the start of a three-city road trip trailing the Mets (who beat the Brewers in walk-off fashion) by a full six games.
The decisive run in today’s loss came when Ian Desmond belted Sean Doolittle’s 3-2 fastball over the center field fence with two outs in the top of the ninth. That snapped a tie game. Truth be told, the Nationals should have held a lead before it ever got to that.
What had been shaping up as a rather run-of-the-mill pitchers’ duel early turned downright nutty late, with wild pitches, passed balls, baserunning mistakes and ultimately home runs taking center stage.
The Nationals found themselves trailing 5-4 in the eighth after D.J. LeMahieu sent an 0-2 fastball from Shawn Kelley over the right-center field wall, a solo homer that stung all the more because it came moments after Howie Kendrick had driven a ball to a similar spot only to have the wind knock it down into center fielder Charlie Blackmon’s glove. Making matters even worse, Bryce Harper (who had been on first base) either was convinced the ball had no chance of being caught or lost track of the number of outs, because he made it all the way around second before turning around and was doubled up in embarrassing fashion.
The Nationals nearly blew an opportunity to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth in embarrassing fashion, as well, when the slow-footed Matt Wieters inexplicably tried to steal second base and was thrown out. Michael A. Taylor made up for the gaffe by taking matters into his own hands: He doubled with two outs, stole third, dancing off the bag to try to disrupt Adam Ottavino and then scored when the latter uncorked a wild pitch.
Harper gave Stephen Strasburg a quick 1-0 lead when he launched a 418-foot home run into the teeth of the strong wind blowing in from right-center in the bottom of the first. Harper’s league-leading seventh home run put his pitcher in position to work with a lead.
Strasburg made the most of it for three innings, retiring the first nine batters he faced on a scant 34 pitches and then retiring the first two batters he faced in the fourth as well. But when Blackmon pulled his own version of Harper and drove a fastball through the wind and into the bleachers, the game was tied in the fourth.
The Nationals struggled throughout this homestand to deliver with runners in scoring position, but they gave themselves no shortage of opportunities. They did so again in the bottom of the fifth, drawing three walks off Tyler Anderson and knocking the Rockies starter out of the game. With Ryan Zimmerman at the plate in a huge, two-out spot against reliever Antonio Senzatella, the Nats finally came through and scored two big runs - without Zimmerman making contact.
Chris Iannetta couldn’t handle Senazatella’s inside fastball, and Iannetta made matters even worse when his throw back to the pitch covering the plate sailed away to allow not only Taylor but also trailing runner Trea Turner to score. The unconventional passed ball plus an error gave the Nationals a 3-1 lead even though Zimmerman eventually grounded out to end the fifth.
Handed that lead, Strasburg couldn’t hold it for long. With two outs and runners on the corners in the top of the sixth, Blackmon sneaked a grounder past a diving Zimmerman at first base and down into the right-field corner. And because Harper was playing the slugger way over in right-center, he couldn’t track down the ball in time to have a play at the plate, leaving the game tied again.
Moments later, Carlos Gonzalez sent a sharp grounder directly through the hole at shortstop vacated by the Nationals’ infield shift, bringing home Blackmon and giving Colorado a 4-3 lead.
Wieters got the run right back with a solo homer in the bottom of the sixth, his second in as many days, but the Nationals stranded the bases loaded and fell to 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position on the afternoon.