Difference in power leads to Nats' sixth straight loss (updated)

ATLANTA – A major difference between the Nationals and Braves is power at the plate. The Braves have it. The Nationals do not.

The Nats have hit the second-fewest homers in the majors and fewest in the National League. Meanwhile, the Braves have hit the third-most in the majors and second-most in the NL.

That difference was pretty glaring in today’s 6-4 loss in front of 40,799 at Truist Park.

When the offense doesn’t have a lot of pop, you need pitching that also keeps the ball in the field of play and doesn’t give up a lot of free baserunners so that those one-run shots don’t turn into multiple runs.

MacKenzie Gore has done a much better job of limiting walks recently. After giving up multiple in nine of his first 10 starts, he had given up just one over his last two starts coming into today’s rematch with the Braves.

Despite six strikeouts in 5 ⅓ innings during his impressive Nationals debut against the Braves back on April 2, he did walk four. He only walked one this afternoon, now his third straight start with one or fewer free passes.

Where Gore now needs to improve is the home run column. In giving up two two-run home runs in the second inning, he has now given up at least one homer in five straight starts and in nine of his 13 starts.

Those longballs were enough to bury the Nats this afternoon. Atlanta has now won seven in a row and six straight in the form of a comeback. Washington has now lost six straight and back-to-back games in which they have jumped out to an early lead.

The damage was done in a long bottom of the second inning. After needing only 12 pitches in the first – in which he did give up a run to erase the 1-0 lead supplied to him in the top half of the inning – Gore needed 39 to finally get out of the second.

He started with a leadoff four-pitch walk to Travis d’Arnaud and then gave up the first two-run shot to Marcell Ozuna, coming on a 94 mph fastball low and inside. Kevin Pillar’s double then set up Ronald Acuña Jr.’s two-run homer on an 84 mph curveball on the outer third of the plate.

“Just a bad inning,” Gore said after the game. “I made some bad pitches. Got some good counts and like I said threw some bad pitches. And like I said after the last one, I gotta do a better job of keeping the ball in the ballpark. I didn't do that today. So just not very good. Yeah, we were able to get through five, but it's tough to win when they score five that early.”

Gore was able to tame the Braves from there, retiring 10 straight to end his outing at 82 pitches, 55 strikes. He finished with four hits, five runs, just one walk, three strikeouts and the two homers as Chad Kuhl took over in the sixth.

“Just did a better job of executing,” Gore said. “The homers were just not great pitches and in spots those guys like to hit. So I have to be better. I keep saying that, but I just got to be a little better. Yeah, we finished strong and on to the next one. But understanding that I gotta do a better job of keeping the ball in the ballpark.”

“We had just one bad inning again, right?” manager Davey Martinez said. “But what I loved was the fact that MacKenzie came back out there and retired 10 in a row with 30 pitches. I mean that's kind of what we're looking for. If we keep him right there, it's good. And all it was was really a conversation about being on the offensive, not afraid of throwing strikes, get ahead of hitters. And he did that and was really, really good. So I was proud of him for doing that.” 

After the ominous first two innings, the Nationals offense was able to make it a close game again. The first run came after Lane Thomas started the game with a leadoff triple into the right-center field gap. Luis García nearly barely missed a two-run homer and had to settle for a deep sac fly for a quick 1-0 lead, just like last night.

Those two at-bats clearly showed the Nats’ approach against rookie left-hander Jared Shuster, who they knocked for four runs on six hits and five walks in that same April 2 game: Swing early and get the ball in the air.

“Just trying to be aggressive in some plus counts,” Thomas said. “He threw some pitches that I was able to do something with.”

Of the 22 batters Shuster faced, 16 of them hit the ball in the outfield. Usually a good sign for an offense, but the problem was they weren’t falling for extra-base hits, nonetheless leaving the yard.

“I think he throws strikes for the most part,” Thomas said. “And I think we had a chance to be aggressive. I thought some guys took some good swings and they just didn't fall.”

After two singles to start the sixth knocked Shuster from the game, the Nats were only able to loft the ball into the outfield three more times, one of them being Stone Garrett’s leadoff home run in the ninth. Whatever power they had faded and was too little too late.

“We tried to get the ball up, get the ball in the air,” Martinez said. “We knew he threw a lot of ground balls. We had some decent at-bats. A couple of balls hit hard to the warning track, but we had some good at-bats. And for the most part, he kept the ball down all game, which is what he does when he's good.”

While the Braves’ four extra-base hits aided in all of their six runs, the Nats’ three extra-baggers (Thomas’ triple and a two-run double in the fifth, and Garret’s homer) led to their only four runs.

“We tried to come back. We fell short a little bit,” Martinez said. “Garrett with a bomb at the end there. But we'll come back tomorrow and try to go 1-0 tomorrow.”

A glaring difference between these two teams now streaking in opposite directions.

“Just come out with some energy,” Thomas said of how the Nats can snap this losing streak. “It's easy to look up and just keep tugging along and not really have the energy to go out and be competitive and aggressive. I think that's the most important part. So try to get everybody going and bring some energy every day.”

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