ST. LOUIS - There was no ninth-inning disaster tonight, no bullpen implosion, no nightmare for the manager or his players to have to try to explain. There was only a 6-4 loss to the Cardinals that felt relatively mundane for a Nationals club that hasn’t experienced anything resembling a mundane loss in some time.
There was the requisite last-gasp rally that brought the go-ahead run to the plate, because this is what they do before they ultimately walk off the field each night. But there also was the requisite final result, and the growing realization that after so many blows to the head in recent days and weeks, any attempt to get back up at this point may only risk permanent brain damage.
Yes, the Nationals are playing much better baseball now than they did earlier in the season. But if it still ends in loss, it’s tough to find silver linings.
“Is there any consolation? I don’t know,” Daniel Murphy said. “We’re playing good baseball. But you still want to get rewarded for it, and we’re not right now, unfortunately.”
On the heels of back-to-back gut-punch losses via bottom-of-the-ninth homers at Wrigley Field and Busch Stadium, the Nats never really put themselves in position to suffer that kind of punishment again tonight. Gio Gonzalez took care of that by allowing five runs in four innings, two of those runs scoring when Cardinals starter John Gant (who hadn’t reached base in any of his first 35 career plate appearances) homered.
Down 6-1 in the eighth, they did show signs of life. Bryce Harper sneaked a ball inside the left field foul pole for his 30th homer of the season, and Murphy added an RBI single shortly after that to turn a five-run hole into a two-run deficit.
But the rally fizzled after that, and the Nationals still were left to contemplate a loss that dropped them back to the .500 mark at 60-60.
“This time of year, you can’t be worn out,” manager Davey Martinez said. “You’ve got to keep fighting. We’re playing for something. They know that, and they’re not going to quit.”
No, it’s not officially over. There are 42 games yet to be played, and 12 of those will be played against the two teams that sit ahead of them in the National League East, with an additional 15 to be played against the two teams that reside in the division’s basement.
But some 48 hours after they were on the verge of moving to within 4 1/2 games of first place, the Nationals now find themselves a season-high eight games behind the Braves. To get to the 90-win mark, they need to go 30-12 the rest of the way. The Braves need only go 23-21, the Phillies 25-19.
“I walked into the cage after the game was over and I asked if the Braves won,” Harper said. “And they did, and they took care of business. They’re a good team over there, and they’re going to keep taking care of business. And Phillies, as well. Like I said, we’ve got to take care of what we know how we can do, and not really worry much about them. Because if we don’t win ballgames, then like I said, we won’t be there.”
For all the attention that was placed on last week’s four-game series with Atlanta - it resulted in a 2-2 split - the greater concern for the Nationals might well have been this subsequent road trip through Chicago and St. Louis, with no days off, late-night travel and a couple of tough opponents.
Five games into this seven-game jaunt, that concern has proven warranted. The Nats are 1-4, three of the losses coming in soul-crushing fashion, tonight’s coming in mostly nondescript fashion.
The Nationals needed Gonzalez to give them a chance, but the erratic left-hander did not comply with those wishes. He already had surrendered a run in the bottom of the second before issuing a two-out walk to No. 8 batter Kolten Wong, bringing Gant to the plate.
Gant, who over the course of three seasons with the Braves and Cardinals was 0-for-30 with five sacrifice bunts and nothing else, proceeded to launch Gonzalez’s 1-1 fastball deep to left for a no-doubt home run that also counted as his first career hit in the big leagues.
“It’s tough to say, but this game was determined on a home run from a person you didn’t expect to hit a home run,” Gonzalez said. “So that’s why it’s tough to swallow.”
Two innings later, Gonzalez again set himself up for disaster via the walk. Two of them, to be precise, to Jedd Gyorko and Harrison Bader to open the bottom of the fourth. Moments later, both runners came around to score on Wong’s double into the right field corner, making it 5-0 St. Louis.
“Obviously, it’s been a hard season,” said Gonzalez, now 7-9 with a 4.12 ERA. “It’s one of those grinding seasons you have to get through, try to claw as many as you can and get some more wins. But unfortunately I’m not doing my part as one of the starting pitchers.”
Martinez would send up Ryan Zimmerman to pinch-hit for Gonzalez in the top of the fifth, at which point the Nationals had finally scored a run thanks to Juan Soto’s double and Matt Wieters’ RBI single. Zimmerman singled himself to keep the rally going, but it died moments later when Adam Eaton lined out to left.
The Cardinals tacked on a run when Wong homered off just-recalled reliever Trevor Gott. The Nats gave the crowd of 38,214 a bit of a scare during the three-run eighth. But by night’s end, everyone in the building could safely cheer the hometown ballclub, which has won seven in a row to thrust itself squarely in the middle of a pennant race.
The visiting club? They’re teetering on the brink. It’s not over yet, but it’s reached the point where even better overall play isn’t enough to make a difference.
“I’m not in the business of predicting the future,” Murphy said. “But if you put yourself in the right position enough times, hopefully you get rewarded for it.”