ANAHEIM, Calif. – They hit the ball well, really well, on several occasions. Which may make the Nationals feel better about the quality of at-bats and contact they’re starting to get from a lineup desperate for some kind of infusion of power.
The results of today’s 3-2 loss to the Angels, though, won’t make them feel any better. Loud contact is great. Scoring runs is even better, and that continues to be a problem.
Less than 24 hours after being one-hit by Shohei Ohtani and the Angels bullpen, the Nationals were held to six hits this afternoon by Griffin Canning and his pitching mates in the home whites. All six were singles, continuing a disturbing early-season trend.
The Nats have only hit five homers in 13 games, and three of those came in the thin air of Coors Field last weekend. They’ve managed only two in nine other games played either in D.C. or here at Angel Stadium, where the cool marine air was not kind to fly balls today.
As such, the Nationals head home with a disappointing finish to what had the potential to be an impressive road trip. A win today would’ve given them a series victory in Anaheim and a 4-3 overall record here and in Colorado. Instead, they return to the East Coast having gone 3-4 on the trip, with the four losses by a combined five runs to leave their overall record at 4-9.
"Everybody wants to win, don't get me wrong," manager Davey Martinez said. "But you know what, they know they're playing hard. They know that one hit here, one hit there, these games we'd win. We've just got to keep fighting."
They also head home on the heels of the first disappointing start of the season by MacKenzie Gore, who got a quick hook from Martinez in the bottom of the fourth.
Gore wasn’t sharp from the get-go. He walked Taylor Ward on five pitches to begin his afternoon, walked three more batters during his abbreviated start and had wild misses with all of his pitches.
"Frustrating," the lefty said. "I put myself, us, in some bad situations. Three of those walks were just non-competitive."
But Gore did manage to minimize damage and came through with some big pitches in big moments.
That included three strikeouts in the bottom of the second to strand a couple runners. And it nearly included the ultimate escape act in the bottom of the fourth, when Gore loaded the bases with nobody out, then struck out Gio Urshela and Logan O’Hoppe and got to a 3-2 count against Brett Phillips. But Phillips (who singlehandedly stole a run in the third on two stolen bases and a throwing error by Keibert Ruiz) took ball four just above the letters to force in a run and bring Martinez out of the dugout for an early hook.
Gore didn’t seem to believe it at first, standing on the mound with a look of shock as his manager walked toward him. The young lefty handed the ball over without saying a word and retreated to the dugout after lasting only 3 2/3 innings while throwing 88 pitches.
"I don't think he realized how many pitches he had thrown," Martinez said. "But that's a lot. I'm not going to leave him out there like that."
It snapped a streak of 11 consecutive starts by the Nationals of at least five innings, tied for longest in the majors.
"When you throw 88 in 3 2/3, you're going to shower early," Gore said after the game, fully understanding his manager's decision.
Mason Thompson did get out of Gore’s jam without allowing anyone else to score, inducing a grounder out of Taylor Ward to end the fourth. He got through the fifth without damage. But he hit a wall in the sixth and surrendered the go-ahead run on a Brandon Drury double and Logan O’Hoppe single before Martinez pulled him.
Thus did the Nationals trail entering the latter portion of the game, though they can’t say they didn’t have chances to do more earlier against Canning, making his first major league start in nearly two years due to a major back injury.
Their best chance came in the fourth, when Jeimer Candelario, Dominic Smith, Joey Meneses and Ruiz strung together four straight singles, Meneses’ opposite-field hit driving in his team’s first run of the day. But with the bases still loaded and nobody out, the bottom half of the lineup failed to sustain the rally, with Luis García’s RBI groundout preceding strikeouts by Lane Thomas and CJ Abrams.
"We had bases loaded, no outs," Martinez said. "I thought we'd have a big inning there that would've sealed the deal. But we couldn't make it happen today."
The Nationals did hit several balls with authority and have nothing to show for it. Meneses and Ruiz each belted drives to deep left-center that looked and sounded like sure-fire home runs off the bat. Each was caught short of the wall by Phillips, including a leaping grab of Ruiz’s 389-foot blast that somehow went for naught and left the young catcher slamming his helmet to the ground in frustration.
"I hit that ball pretty good, and I thought it was going to go farther," Ruiz said. "But it didn't. It hurts. Especially in those close games, you just want to score a run for your team."
Given how much of a challenge it has been for everyone on this team to hit the ball over the fence two weeks into the season, it’s easy to understand the frustration.