Pivotal sixth inning has become Nationals’ toughest frame

SAN FRANCISCO - What’s the most important inning in a ballgame? For the Nationals right now, it might be the sixth.

The Nats pitching staff has had all kinds of trouble navigating through that bridge inning without getting into serious trouble, and it has cost them several games along the way.

The Nationals have been scored upon in the sixth inning in 11 of 24 games this season, including five of eight during this road trip and each of the last three nights. And those have been key runs surrendered.

Solis-Throws-Red-Sidebar.jpgOn Sunday night at Dodger Stadium, the Nats led 3-0 in the sixth when Jeremy Hellickson and Sammy Solís combined to surrender three runs that left the game tied. Trevor Gott then gave up the winning run in the seventh.

On Monday night at AT&T Park, the Nats trailed 2-1 but were at least in position to come back with one swing of the bat. Instead, Gio Gonzalez walked the leadoff man and was pulled, and Shawn Kelley served up a towering home run to Mac Williamson on his first pitch out of the bullpen, leaving his team in a 4-1 hole.

And on Tuesday night, the Nats took a 3-3 lead into the bottom of the sixth, only to have Tanner Roark hang a first-pitch curveball to Williamson with two outs in the inning and watch as the ball soared to center field for the decisive home run in a 4-3 loss.

“The sixth inning,” manager Davey Martinez lamented. “It seems like the sixth inning has been biting us in the rear here as of late.”

Why is that? Probably because Nationals starters have struggled to get through that frame as their pitch counts have risen and fatigue sets in. And because the portion of their bullpen that typically appears in that inning - middle relievers including Solís, Gott and Kelley - hasn’t been nearly as reliable as the late-inning trio of Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle that is saved for the seventh, eighth and ninth.

The Nationals really needed Roark to get through the sixth Tuesday night unscathed, but a laborious, 32-pitch bottom of the first left him facing an uphill climb the rest of the way. He took the mound for the sixth with a pitch count of 95. He finished the inning at 105.

“I know he threw a lot of pitches,” Martinez said. “We talked to him, but he said he was fine. He felt good. He felt strong.”

The Nats send Max Scherzer to the mound in today’s series finale, needing their ace to come through and stop a four-game losing streak. If anyone should be able to be counted on to make it through the dangerous sixth inning without trouble, the three-time Cy Young Award winner would seem to be the guy.

Then again, these days the Nationals must have doubts about anybody who takes the mound in that situation.

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