Nats again can't slug in strike zone in loss to Snakes (updated)

The Nationals’ aggressiveness at the plate has been on display all season. They want to swing at strikes, get on base and steal bases to score runs.

The approach of swinging at strikes is all well and good on paper. But you have to do some damage with those hitter’s pitches to make it meaningful.

They’ve had some trouble with it this week against the Diamondbacks. It didn’t work at all on Tuesday while seeing a grand total of 96 pitches during a 5-0 shutout. It barely worked Wednesday when they needed Jesse Winker’s two-run home run to rescue them in a 3-1 win after seeing only 104 pitches.

And it didn’t work again Thursday in a 5-2 loss to the Snakes as the Nats dropped their first series in their last four attempts in front of an announced crowd of 21,158.

The Nationals offense was once again doomed by not doing too much in the strike zone.

As they did on Tuesday, they made it easy for Arizona starter Ryne Nelson, who entered today with a 5.49 ERA and 1.640 WHIP. Of the first 24 Nats hitters, only six saw more than three pitches in an at-bat. And only five put balls in play on pitches out of the strike zone.

"We just missed some pitches to hit," manager Davey Martienz said after the game. "We were getting balls right there and we're fouling them off. We gotta get on them. Like I said, we got to try to jump on these starters early. I don't mind them swinging early. Today we took some fastballs right there. He came right back and foul. And we made early outs, too. But these guys are coming in, these guys attacked us this series. Gotta get ready to hit. We just gotta get ready to hit.”

The damage was almost non-existent. The Nats only recorded three hits against Nelson despite putting a lot of balls in play: Joey Meneses’ single in the second, Lane Thomas’ solo home run in the third and Winker’s solo shot in the sixth.

“I wish there were more runners on base so we could have won the game," said Thomas.

That approach left Nelson at only 70 pitches after seven innings of two-run, three-hit ball. But as he has done this week, Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo turned to his strong bullpen to close this one out.

To the Nats’ credit, they only struck out four times today, as they are one of the best teams in the majors in not striking out. But they also didn’t draw any walks, an area where they rank in the lower half of the league.

The final count: Eight batters saw more than three pitches, 25 balls were put in play, two hits (both singles) were recorded and only 87 total pitches were seen by the Nats offense. They saw a grand total of 287 pitches over the course of these three games.

“When we're going good, I feel like our offense is pretty aggressive," Thomas said. "So I think that is normal. I just think we could have easily had some hits fall and some of theirs not fall, and it could have been a different ballgame. I thought they kind of hit 'em where we weren't today. Nothing hit too hard, but just good placement. So I think that game could have easily gone our way.”

Meanwhile, a lot of hits fell against their own starter, MacKenzie Gore, who departed after five innings with a pitch count over 100.

Gore recorded three strikeouts around a single in the top of the first, which seemingly was going to set him up for another dominant start. But with each passing inning, he kept having to get himself out of jams with his pitch count rising in the process. Not to mention, the quick outs by his offense left him little time to rest in the dugout on this 90-degree day in the District.

The left-hander didn’t have a clean inning on the day. He stranded the lone runner in the first, then runners on the corners in the second and third. But the danger he was putting himself in caught up to him in the fourth.

With a 1-0 lead at this point, a hit, sacrifice bunt, hit (originally called a throwing error on Ildemaro Vargas but later changed) and an RBI single tied the game. Then Randal Grichuk hit a two-run double into the left field corner, where Winker had some trouble fielding the ball, to give the D-backs a 3-1 lead.

The frame finally ended with Gore at 76 pitches, but things continued to escalate in the fifth. With two outs, Gore surrendered a single and stolen base. Then came the battle that would essentially end the left-hander’s day: A nine-pitch plate appearance by Blaze Alexander ended in a walk to continue the inning. Kevin Newman followed with an RBI single to right before Gore finally closed the frame at 103 pitches, 72 strikes.

“Frustrating. A lot of hits," he said. "So it would've been nice to win this series, but look, we've been playing well. It was a good homestand. Keep it going tomorrow.”

Gore scattered a career-high 10 hits (nine of which were singles) with four runs (all earned), two walks and seven strikeouts over his five innings.

“It's just part of the game, I guess," he said. "Yeah, a lot of (soft hits) today. It's a good thing when they're not hitting the ball hard. But you gotta understand why they're getting hits, too. So it was one of those days. We got another one tomorrow.”

“He was two different guys for me today," Martinez said. "The top of the lineup, he was nails. He was pounding the zone and striking out guys. And the bottom of the lineup, which they didn't hit the ball hard, but it was a little different for him. I feel like he wasn't really in sync the whole day. He battled some innings there.”

As it has for much of the season, the Nats bullpen kept the game close until ​​Christian Walker smoked a solo homer off Jordan Weems in the ninth to make it a three-run game.

But it was of little consequence because, as it too has done for much of the season, the Nats offense couldn’t slug in the strike zone.

“I don't think there's any adjustment," Thomas said. "Like I said, those easily could have gone our way. ... It's a big league defense. Those guys are out there because they're good at what position they play. So I felt like, myself included, we hit some balls hard this whole series. And sometimes they just don't get through and it sucks, but that's part of the game.”

“We're playing well," Martinez said. "I'm not going to let one game deter what we're what we're trying to do. It was tough today, but we'll come back tomorrow. We fly out to Colorado. Let's try to go 1-0 tomorrow.”

* CJ Abrams has a small ganglion cyst around his left wrist, Martinez revealed after the game. He was not available off the bench today and is day-to-day moving forward.

* Josiah Gray will make another rehab start next week with Triple-A Rochester. He'll try to stretch out to six ups and around 90 pitches.

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