Nationals drop lackluster opener to Phillies (updated)

If this is the way the Nationals are going to play all weekend, they’re probably going to help the Phillies clinch their first postseason berth in 11 years.

With a chance to deal their fading division rivals a serious blow in their attempt to hold off the Brewers for the final wild card berth in the National League, the Nats put forth a lackluster performance during today’s 5-1 loss in the opener of a day-night doubleheader as the first wave of rain from former Hurricane Ian began to reach the region.

The Nationals were shut out for six innings by Phillies starter Bailey Falter, then pushed across only one run against their bullpen, stranding the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. They got another laborious five innings out of Erick Fedde. They also ran themselves into multiple outs on the bases and committed an error in the field to round out a disappointing showing in the opener of a scheduled four-game weekend series.

"We keep battling; we had the tying run up at the plate, and it just didn't happen," manager Davey Martinez said. "But when you give teams extra outs, it's tough. It really is."

Having now lost 14 of 16 to the Phillies this season, the Nats will try to reverse that trend in the scheduled 7:05 p.m. nightcap, though the status of that game is very much in question due to the rain that is expected to wreak havoc through the remainder of the weekend and could potentially force both teams to return to town Thursday to make up any un-played games that could decide the playoff race.

For the moment, the Phillies lead the Brewers by one game, with six games to go on each contender’s schedule.

Given the forecast and the rescheduling of a Saturday night game to a Friday matinee, the stands were nearly empty when Fedde took the mound at 1:05 p.m., a few hundred fans clustered mostly behind both dugouts for the start of this contest.

So there wasn’t a whole lot of crowd reaction to anything that took place early on, whether positive or negative for the home team. Those Phillies fans who were in attendance did cheer when Rhys Hoskins drove a 3-2 cutter from Fedde to right-center for a 1-0 lead, Hoskins’ seventh homer against the Nationals this season.

As is often the case, Fedde found himself trying to pitch out of traffic throughout his start. He enjoyed only one clean inning, and even that one required 13 pitches to retire three batters. He let the Phillies steal five bases off him (two of those coming on a double-steal), taking advantage of his slow delivery (1.6 seconds) to the plate.

"I think early, maybe I wasn't mixing my looks as much as I should have, especially with the steal at second base," Fedde said. "But I've got to be quicker. I bounced a couple pitches when they ran, too. I just want to give (catcher Riley Adams) a chance to throw some guys out."

"Those ones are on me," Adams tried to insist. "I was a little out of control on those, didn't get a good grip. I've got to be better for my team, and more importantly for those pitchers. I know there's a lot I can clean up there to give myself a better opportunity to get guys out."

To his credit, Fedde managed to shrug most of that off and limit the damage to a reasonable amount, ultimately allowing two earned runs over five innings.

Fedde’s pitch count stood at 99 when he walked off the mound at the end of the fifth, and that figured to be it for him. But Martinez had him re-take the mound for the sixth, only to pull him after one batter faced, with Nick Castellanos reaching on a wild, two-base throwing error by shortstop CJ Abrams.

Jordan Weems entered from the bullpen and allowed the runner he inherited to score when he surrendered a single to Brandon Marsh and then was called for a balk with runners on the corners, forcing the run home from third.

Thus did Fedde finish his day with three runs allowed (two earned) on seven hits and one walk, his pitch count reaching 104.

"They asked me in the dugout how I felt, and I said this was one of the stronger times I felt this year," he said. "I really wanted the chance to go back out (for the sixth), and I'm glad they gave me the opportunity. Unfortunately, didn't get to finish out the inning. But I'm happy with the belief and the way I threw the ball today."

It wasn’t a quality start, but it was good enough to give his teammates a chance. Unfortunately, those teammates couldn’t muster any offense against Falter, who cruised through his six scoreless innings on 84 pitches.

The Nats advanced only one runner into scoring position against Falter, putting two on with one out in the fourth. But Alex Call struck out and Ildemaro Vargas grounded out to quash that rally.

The Nationals also hurt their cause by running into two outs in the third inning alone. Victor Robles, after leading off with a single, was caught by Falter taking off for second too soon and was picked off. Lane Thomas later drew a two-out walk, only to be caught stealing moments later to end the inning.

"As much as we talk about these little things, they've got to start getting better at it," Martinez said. "They've got to start paying attention. They're told on the bases by our base coaches we were down runs. Let the guy hit."

Luis García’s two-out RBI single off reliever Zach Eflin finally got the Nats on the board in the seventh. And when they loaded the bases with one out in the ninth, they gave themselves two chances to tie the game with one swing. But Robles struck out on three pitches, and César Hernández (pinch-hitting for Adams) grounded out to end the game.

"They don't quit. They're going to play to the last out," Martinez said. "I want them to take the last-inning at-bats into the first inning, and work that way. Let's see if we get some runners on base that way and score some runs early."

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