Nats' bats cool against Phillies bullpen in loss (updated)

The Nationals were in position today to be somewhere they haven’t been since April 3: Anywhere but last place in the National League East.

Last night’s dramatic 8-7 victory gave them the same record as the defending National League champion Phillies, who also happen to be in town this weekend. A win today would have put them ahead of them in the division standings.

With an electric young pitcher in MacKenzie Gore on the mound and a lineup that’s been heating up facing a group of relievers, the Nats had a good chance to vault out of the basement. But after scoring 18 runs over their last two games, the offense cooled down and wasn’t able to produce enough in a 4-2 loss in front of an announced crowd of 30,959.

“We just couldn't get the offense going today," manager Davey Martinez said after the game. "I thought MacKenzie threw the ball well. Made a couple of mistakes, but other than that he was around the zone all day and gave us a good six innings. Just the bats were stale today.”

After one of the best outings of his young career, Gore was able to turn in back-to-back quality starts for the first time since late April.

He wasn’t as effective as he was during his 11-strikeout performance on Sunday in Kansas City, but he was good enough to keep the Nationals in the game throughout his six innings.

“It was OK," Gore said. "I made some mistakes that really cost us. All the runs were just pitches that were not executed. So frustrating when it comes to that, but we were able to get through six.”

Gore surrendered at least one baserunner in each inning and gave up two early runs to two former Nationals. Josh Harrison, the fourth former Nat in the Phillies lineup, delivered an RBI single in the second and Trea Turner hit an RBI double in the third, each with two outs, for a 2-0 lead.

The Nationals came back to tie the game in the fourth with more small ball and heads-up baserunning. Three straight singles put them on the board, with Keibert Ruiz driving in Joey Meneses. And then Ruiz made a smart play with runners on the corners when CJ Abrams grounded into a force out at first and the catcher kept the rundown between first and second going long enough for Dominic Smith to score before he was eventually tagged out.

“I just saw he touched first and we got a chance for (Smith) to get to home plate," Ruiz said. "I was happy for us. We had that run and tied the game.”

“That was awesome. That's good heads up baseball," Martinez said. "At that time it was a big run. He did the right thing. Just don't run into an out and let the run score. That was a great play by him.”

But a bad sequence in the fifth wasted an opportunity for the Nats to take the lead. For the second time in as many at-bats for Lane Thomas with runners on base a called strike on a ball outside from home plate umpire Ben May led to another strikeout, and Thomas let May know it. And then Alex Call was easily picked off at first base to end the inning.

“Let's be honest: They're not tough, they were horrible, alright? We're gonna be honest about that one. It was two horrific calls," Martinez said of the two strike three calls against Thomas. "It stinks as a hitter you go up there battling and you get called strikes like that. Like I said, I never get angry with the umpires. They got a job to do and it's a tough job. But in a big moment like that, those are bad calls.”

In the following frame, J.T. Realmuto hit a 93 mph fastball from Gore 407 feet into the Phillies bullpen for a leadoff home run. Realmuto hit the ball 106 mph off the bat, one of six balls hit 102 mph or harder off Gore this afternoon.

“You gotta just go one pitch at a time," Gore said. "I know I say that a lot, but you can't really think let's try to go seven today. That's kind of looking ahead. They had some good at-bats and the stuff wasn't as good today. But like I said, we battled. I just made a few bad pitches. We did a good job of battling back, scoring two, and then I just made a bad pitch in the sixth.”

Though for a while it was only a one-run game and they were able to pull off a rally against Philadelphia’s relievers last night, the Nats were unable to do so today against a Phillies bullpen day.

“I think it's gonna be tough because you don't face the same pitcher in three at-bats," Ruiz said of facing so many different pitchers. "But that's not an excuse. I feel like we played a good game. The game was close. We just got to keep the head up and come back tomorrow and win the series.”

Outside of the three hits and two runs off Dylan Covey in the fourth, the Nats only managed four knocks in the eight other innings against a group of seven Phillies relievers.

“I think it's a challenge for any team really to see different guys almost every inning," Martinez said. "But still knowing you got to make adjustments. So we'll come back tomorrow. Look, we get a chance to win another series tomorrow, so let's come back tomorrow and go 1-0 tomorrow.”

Erasmo Ramírez pitched a clean seventh but got into trouble in the eighth, which Chad Kuhl couldn’t clean up while surrendering a sacrifice fly to Brandon Marsh to make it a two-run game.

There’s still an opportunity to take the series tomorrow and get back even with the Phillies in the standings. But the Nats couldn’t capitalize on an opportunity to set up a possible sweep and put two games between them and their rivals.

“We feel like we've been competing good against a really good team," Ruiz said. "They're a really good team and we just got to believe it. We're gonna be good at the end. And like I say, keep playing hard, keep getting better and come back for tomorrow and win the series.”

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