Nats avoid sweep behind Gore, Thomas and bullpen (updated)

The Nationals were in search of two things Sunday afternoon: The first quality start by a starting pitcher and a win to avoid their first series sweep of the season.

They barely missed out on the first despite a strong performance by MacKenzie Gore, but did just enough to squeak out a 3-2 victory and salvage this three-game set against the Phillies before heading to the West Coast for 10 days.

“It was good,” Gore said after his first win of the season. “It was one of those days where we needed to figure out how to win a game. I thought everybody did a great job of that.”

After a somewhat disappointing start in Monday’s home opener against the Pirates, Gore regrouped to come one out short of a quality start against a tough Philadelphia lineup.

Utilizing a good mix of four pitches, Gore relied mostly on his fastball, which sat at 97 mph throughout the afternoon. Of his six strikeouts, four came on his heater, including his last one at 99 mph to Trea Turner in the sixth, the former Nats shortstop’s third strikeout of the day.

“He's got his fastball,” said manager Davey Martinez. “For me, as we talked about, it's his misses. If he can keep his misses close to the zone, it's tough to lay off of. His ball has got that late ride to it. So when he does that and he's around the plate, he could throw the ball up, he could throw the ball down. And when he mixes in his changeups and his curveball, he's pretty nasty.”

“It was good,” Gore said of his fastball. “I thought we used it in the right way and it was good. So I thought it was the best pitch today and we used it.”

Gore’s two non-fastball strikeouts came on a slider to Turner in the third and a changeup to Cristian Pache in the fifth.

Aside from throwing the fastball more than half the time, Gore was almost even in the times he threw his curveball, slider and changeup.

“He keeps guys off balance,” Martinez said. “But he knows he has his fastball. We tell him, hey, throw your fastball, and then you can mix in your breaking balls. Know which guys you can throw your breaking balls early in counts, and he did really well.”

Even though Gore's results were almost identical to what he issued in the loss to the Pirates (five hits, two runs, two walks and six strikeouts over 5 ⅔ innings in today’s win), the process made it feel like a better performance than what we saw six days ago.

“That's a good team,” he said. “I think with the way the game was going, it was kind of one of those days where you needed to make pitches when you had to. And we did that as a staff, everybody. So which one was better or not, I don't really have a good answer for you. But we just got to keep taking it day by day, trying to get better, get ready for the next one. We won the game today, so it was a good day.”

Gore was really only tortured by one batter today, No. 8 hitter Edmundo Sosa, who went 2-for-2 with a homer and two RBIs against the left-hander. The home run came on a seemingly good pitch – a low-and-inside slider – that the right-handed bat just happened to hit over the wall in left-center field to tie the game at 2-2 in the fifth.

But Gore retired the next four batters he faced to complete his day and put the Nats in position to win, receiving a nice ovation from the crowd of 24,765 in attendance on South Capitol Street as he departed in the sixth.

“He gave us the innings we needed,” Martinez said. “I went out there to talk to him and we talked before he went out, he said he's right about where he needs to be. I thought he did great. I really did. The boys battled. They battled. Our at-bats were better. We hit some balls hard, but they battled all day. Our defense was really good, we made some really nice plays. … So we came out ahead at the end and it was a good day.”

The Nats did, however, have to battle back from an early deficit again after Sosa’s RBI single in the second. This marked the seventh time in the Nats’ first nine games they failed to score first.

No matter though, because the offense rallied behind Gore to put him in position for the win.

Luis García Jr. slapped an RBI single the other way to tie the game 1-1 in the bottom of the second against Phillies left-handed starter Cristopher Sánchez. And then Lane Thomas, hitting in the No. 3 spot instead of the usual No. 2 hole, paced the offense by reaching base three times.

Thomas reached in his first two plate appearances via a walk and a single. Both times he would steal second base (once with help from Bryce Harper who couldn’t make the throw to second base after Sánchez picked Thomas off at first). And both times Thomas would come around to score on a single by Joey Meneses and sacrifice fly by Riley Adams to give the Nats a 3-2 lead after the fifth.

“Give credit to our coaches for giving me good situations to run in, some good counts,” Thomas said. “Some of their guys are slower to the plate, so I knew you gotta take advantage of it.”

The Nats outfielder, who is now 4-for-6 with two walks and three runs scored over these last two games, would reach again on a single in the seventh and steal his third base of the afternoon, but did not come around to score.

“We’re gonna hit our home runs, but I don’t think that’s our identity as a team,” he said. “So I think that’s really important to take advantage of them on the bases, be aggressive and get some runs early that way.”

Although it would have been nice for the Nats to tack on more insurance runs, Jordan Weems, Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan slammed the door shut out of the bullpen.

Now after a game that also included the ejection of bench coach Miguel Cairo by home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez for arguing balls and strikes from the dugout in the bottom of the second inning, the Nats embark on their first true road test of the young season.

“It definitely makes the flight a little more fun,” Thomas said. “But it’s early. Obviously, we can play with these teams. So I think going forward, we’re gonna get better.”

“This was a team win,” Martinez said. “You got McKenzie to go out there and get us into the sixth inning. And the bullpen comes in and does what they need to do. And we scratch and claw to get the three runs. It's awesome. That's awesome. And I want the guys to understand, hey, we can do this. We can win. We don't always have to score five, six, seven runs. We just got to continue to play well, play good defense, run the bases well and get timely hits. And we can compete. We can compete with anybody. So it was a good day all around. It's nice to be able to go five hours on a plane knowing that you just won today. Then we can relax a little bit and get ready to go tomorrow.”

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