The Nationals’ September swoon has largely been tied to poor performances by their starting pitchers, and in particular by abbreviated outings by those starters.
Unable to consistently complete five or more innings, members of the Nats rotation have not only dug their team into early holes, they’ve put added strain on a bullpen that’s not built to withstand this much work.
So the last thing anyone wanted to see tonight in the opener of a weekend series against the Dodgers, the first of 17 consecutive scheduled games heading into the season’s final week, was another short outing by MacKenzie Gore. The left-hander lasted only four innings, and even though he technically kept his team in the game, the work that was then required of the bullpen was too much to overcome in what finished as an 8-5, rain-delayed loss to Los Angeles.
Not even the thunderstorm that popped up with two outs in the top of the seventh could salvage anything for the Nats. The rain didn't last long enough for officials to call the game at that point, so Davey Martinez had to ask Amos Willingham (his sixth reliever of the night) to pitch the final 2 1/3 innings following a 1-hour, 34-minute delay.
In the end, Martinez summoned all but two of his eight bullpen arms. Willingham was the only one who recorded three outs. Two were charged with two runs a piece: Robert Garcia and Jordan Weems, who combined to allow the decisive four runs in the top of the sixth of a game that saw Nationals pitchers issue nine total walks.
"It's like it's contagious," Martinez said of the free passes. "One guy comes in and does it, and it seems like everybody after him walks one or two guys. Against a team like that, you give them free bases like that, you're going to pay the price. It just can't happen."
The tone was set by Gore, who took the mound for the first time in 10 days. That extended break was precipitated by a trip to the bereavement leave list but was fortuitous in its timing because the Nationals had been looking for a way to space out his workload down the stretch before his career-high innings total gets too high.
They hoped the extra rest would do the left-hander good, but it was quickly apparent it would not. Gore labored through another long first inning, serving up a two-run homer to J.D. Martinez and needing 26 pitches to complete the frame. In the process, he extended an ignominious streak: Nationals pitchers have given up at least one run in the top of the first in all seven games on this homestand to date.
"Obviously, I didn't throw the ball very well," Gore said. "I don't think it had anything to do with the extra days (off). It just wasn't very good."
Gore would be tortured by the longball twice more, with Max Muncy and Kiké Hernández each homering in the top of the fourth, Muncy’s 408-foot blast reaching the third deck down the right field line.
And that’s as far as Martinez would let Gore go. The lefty, who was once again dealing with a blister on his middle finger, was pulled after four runs in four innings on 89 pitches and renewed questions about the club’s plan for him over the final three weeks of the season.
"I couldn't send him back out," Martinez said. "He had a blister again, same finger. It bubbled up on him. So I just said that's it. We'll have to look at that tomorrow and see where we're at. But it would've been nice (to get more) because we covered a lot of innings (with the bullpen)."
The Nationals did not leave Gore in line for the loss, though, because they put on a rare power display of their own against Dodgers rookie Emmit Sheehan. And the hitters providing that power were the two most important young players on the roster.
Keibert Ruiz got it started with a three-run blast in the bottom of the first, continuing his torrid season against the organization that traded him. At that moment, the young catcher was 5-for-12 with four homers against Los Angeles, surely feeling some extra satisfaction from that development.
"I think, yeah," he said. "The results are there. But like I've said before, I'm not trying to do too much. I'm just trying to look for a good pitch, get a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it."
CJ Abrams provided the other home run, driving a fastball from Sheehan the other way for a two-run shot in the fifth to give the Nats a 5-4 lead. Abrams, who earlier stole his 41st base of the season, now has 16 homers to go along with that total.
That was the extent of the Nationals’ offense tonight, though. There was no late rally, leaving the few fans who waited until the end with no reason to leave happy after a long night at the park.
"We've got to learn when we take a lead against a team like that, we've got to hold the lead." Martinez said. "That's the big thing. We've got to get to the two guys in the back end of our bullpen. If we can do that, we'll be in good shape. When our starting pitchers go five-plus innings, it makes a big difference for us."