SAN FRANCISCO - It felt like a potential turning point for a lineup desperately in need of one. Michael A. Taylor’s three-run, opposite-field homer in the top of the fourth tonight at AT&T Park was exactly what the offensively starved Nationals needed, a jolt of life that left them tied with the Giants and chance to win this game if they simply made key pitches the rest of the way and delivered one more big hit.
Then Tanner Roark failed to make one key pitch, and the Nats found themselves trailing again. And then Ryan Zimmerman failed to deliver one big hit in the most critical moment of the game, and the Nats found themselves on the wrong end of the final score again.
This 4-3 loss - their fourth straight, and one that leaves them 10-14 overall and 6 1/2 games back in the division - was as frustrating as any the Nationals have suffered during a frustrating opening month. It produced, however, the same clubhouse reaction as the previous ones did: Insistence from all parties that the tide will turn sometime soon.
“We’re going to get out of this, I’m telling you,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We’re going to get out of this. I just want these guys to understand that: One, we ain’t going to put our heads down; Two, we’re going to keep battling, and things are going to go our way.”
In order for that to happen, though, Nationals pitchers are going to have to find a way not to give up key runs in the sixth and seventh innings. And Nationals hitters are going to have to find a way to deliver a run-scoring hit with the game on the line.
They did neither tonight.
With the Nationals needing him to provide innings, Roark put himself behind the 8-ball right out of the chute. He loaded the bases in the bottom of the first, then spiked an 0-2 curveball in the dirt to bring a run home before finally getting out of the frame on 32 pitches.
Roark had to battle back from that inauspicious start to his evening, and he dug himself into a deeper hole when he hung a 3-2 curveball to Brandon Belt with two outs in the third. Belt, who hit a far more significant homer off Roark in the 18th inning of Game 2 of the National League Division Series, sent this curveball flying over the right field wall to give the Giants a 3-0 lead.
“It didn’t have that bite,” Roark said of the curveball he struggled all night to find. “There were a couple curveballs that I threw that were good; that’s what I wanted. The two that I gave up, the home runs, they were just up and kind of didn’t have that extra bite on it.”
A lifeless offense that managed to hit only one ball out of the infield through the first 3 2/3 innings against Ty Blach finally set the stage for a rally in the fourth when Zimmerman walked and Moisés Sierra singled. Taylor then delivered a most-desired big blast: a three-run, opposite-field homer that tied the game and represented the Nats’ biggest hit since Friday night in Los Angeles.
“I mean, oppo home run from Michael ... that was huge,” Martinez said. “It picked us up. We needed that. Things were going.”
Except things didn’t go anywhere after that. Roark took the mound for the bottom of the sixth sitting on 95 pitches, and though he got two quick outs, one came on a flyball to the warning track in center, the other on a leaping grab by Howie Kendrick on a scorched line drive to second base. Roark then misfired on another curveball, serving it up on a platter for Mac Williamson, who launched it to center field to put the Giants back on top.
“I felt good,” the right-hander said. “Just relaxing and keep attacking. I knew Williamson was swinging first pitch. Just a bad curveball.”
Needing to mount a rally against the San Francisco bullpen, the Nationals gave themselves only one opportunity, though it was a good one. When Kendrick laced a one-out double to the gap in the top of the eighth, they had themselves a man in scoring position. The problem: With first base open, Giants manager Bruce Bochy was afforded the luxury of intentionally walking Bryce Harper and pitching instead to the .188-hitting Zimmerman.
Wanting to be aggressive and not fall behind in the count, Zimmerman took a whack at right-hander Sam Dyson’s first-pitch fastball. He grounded it directly at shortstop Brandon Crawford, who started a simple 6-4-3 double play to end the inning and kill yet another Nationals rally.
“Pitch right down the middle,” Zimmerman lamented. “Hit it hard. Just hit it on the ground. ... I got a pitch I could do damage with, and I just didn’t do it.”
That was the refrain emanating from the clubhouse after this game. If it sounds familiar, it should. The Nationals have been left uttering the same refrain through much of this troublesome April.
“We played well; we just can’t get that big hit right now,” Martinez said. “We’re hitting the ball. ... They’re swinging the bats. We just can’t get that big hit with people on base.”