Nationals can’t hold onto lead, can’t finish late rally in 4-3 loss

LOS ANGELES - There’s no shame losing two of three at Dodger Stadium to the defending National League champs. The Nationals shouldn’t walk out of here with heads hung low.

Yet after beating Clayton Kershaw in Friday’s opener and then getting a gem from Stephen Strasburg on Saturday and then holding a three-run lead in the sixth inning tonight, this weekend felt like something of a missed opportunity, capped by a 4-3 loss in the Sunday night finale.

“You always want to win games, especially when you lead in them, but we haven’t been able to do that yet,” said Trea Turner, whose team has now lost four times this season when carrying a lead into the sixth inning. “Hopefully, we can get the ball rolling in San Fran. I think we played better baseball this road trip than we were at home. I think we’re going in the right direction.”

There was no shortage of opportunities to win tonight’s nationally televised games, even after Jeremy Hellickson, Sammy Solís and Trevor Gott combined to give up four runs in the sixth and seventh innings. The Nationals had two on and one out in the seventh, but watched as Turner and Howie Kendrick each struck out on borderline pitches. Then they had an even better chance in the top of the ninth against Kenley Jansen.

When Matt Adams (now 4-for-5 in his career against the Dodgers closer) and Wilmer Difo each singled to open the final frame, the Nats were in prime position. But rookie Andrew Stevenson, who entered in the sixth as part of a double-switch, struck out on three pitches (pulling back a bunt attempt on the second one). Turner again struck out looking at a borderline pitch. And Kendrick, despite driving a ball to center field, could only reach the warning track and watch Chris Taylor make the catch to end the game.

Rizzo-Martinez-Chat-Sidebar.jpg“I do believe that we battled,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We competed. You’re looking at a Dodger team that’s really good. But we competed. We played all the way to end there.”

The Nats led for most of the night, thanks to some big hits and some unexpected dominance from their No. 5 starter.

When he needed 25 pitches to navigate his way through a scoreless first inning, Hellickson may have left the dugout thinking he was in for a short night. But he then proceeded to retire 14 batters in a row, five by strikeout, thanks to a deft array of two-seamers, curveballs and changeups that left the Dodgers flailing away at the plate.

“Pretty much just commanding the ball, all three pitches,” he said. “The changeup was really good. And then when I’d fall behind, just getting back in the count with my curveball or a good fastball down and away.”

Hellickson’s teammates, meanwhile, opened up a 3-0 lead thanks to rallies sparked by Ryan Zimmerman (double in the second) and Michael A. Taylor (homer in the fourth, double in the sixth).

But then came the critical bottom of the sixth, with Hellickson asked to face the top of the Dodgers lineup for the third time. It didn’t go well. Taylor doubled. Corey Seager walked. Yasmani Grandal doubled both home to make it a 3-2 game and bring Martinez out of the dugout to summon Solís in a key spot. Moments later, Cody Bellinger had crushed a double off the center field wall, bringing home the go-ahead run.

Gott silenced the crowd of 51,297 when he struck out Yasiel Puig and Chase Utley on fastballs that registered 97 and 96 mph, respectively.

“You just try to play matchups,” said Martinez, who did not have Ryan Madson available for any game in this series after he pitched three straight nights in New York. “Solís, he can get us out of that inning, and then we can do something else. On the flip side, Gott came in and did unbelievable. He really did.”

Trouble is, Gott was asked to return to the mound for the seventh and couldn’t keep the game tied. He hit Austin Barnes with a breaking ball, surrendered a seeing-eye single to Taylor and then a sacrifice fly to Seager that put the Dodgers up for the first time in the game and left the Nationals needing to mount a late rally.

The Nationals couldn’t complete that late rally, and so they now head north to San Francisco for the final leg of this long road trip with a 10-12 record that could easily be flipped with a couple better performances in key spots.

“We want to come in and win every game, and when they go out there and give us a chance to win, we want to close those games out,” Michael A. Taylor said. “There’s not much we can do about it now, but we’ll continue to keep grinding, those guys will continue to give us quality starts and we’ll put runs on the board.”

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