Nats can't complete rally, split series with D-backs

When it finally came down to it early this evening, when the Nationals finally gave themselves a chance to complete a late rally and pull off an inspiring comeback against the Diamondbacks, they were handed a best-case scenario.

Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, down by a run, Juan Soto at the plate. What more could you ask for?

"I'll take my chances with Juan up there with the bases loaded," manager Davey Martinez said. "I hope he gets up there a lot with the bases loaded."

Soto had come up with the bases full only once this season. RBI opportunities have been few and far between for perhaps the most feared hitter in baseball. So when this one presented itself, he was understandably motivated to deliver.

Alas, it takes more than motivation to deliver the hit that turns loss into victory. And when Soto popped up the high 0-2 cutter he saw from Arizona closer Mark Melancon, the dismay among the crowd of 14,424 and among the players in home white uniforms as a 4-3 loss became official was all too evident.

"It was a bad pitch," he said. "I swung at a ball. There's nothing I can do with a bad pitch. I've got to look for pitches in the strike zone to make good contact."

Soto's popup to third base for the 27th out of the series finale stood out as the most significant moment of the entire game. But it was just one of several opportunities the Nationals had to pull off a late rally.

Down two runs in the bottom of the eighth, four batters managed to reach base against Diamondbacks setup man Ian Kennedy. Alcides Escobar walked. Victor Robles scooted a grounder under third baseman Yonny Hernandez's glove and made it all the way to second base.

But with the tying runner in scoring position, César Hernández struck out on a fastball. And after Arizona intentionally walked Soto to load the bases, Nelson Cruz popped out on the first pitch he saw from Kennedy.

Josh Bell, returning to the lineup after departing Wednesday night’s game with tightness in his left knee, nearly struck out on three pitches but clipped Jose Herrera’s mitt on the final swing and was awarded first base via catcher’s interference (the third such time a Nats batter has reached in that manner already this season). That forced home a run and kept the inning alive for Keibert Ruiz. But the 23-year-old catcher, like the 41-year-old designated hitter two batters earlier, popped up on the first pitch he saw, this one ending the inning with the Nats still trailing by a run.

"We have to make sure we're hitting strikes, not chasing," Martinez said. "And we chased a little bit today. But our bats got better at the end of the game. We battled back. We just couldn't finish."

Escobar and Robles would deliver two-out singles off Melancon in the bottom of the ninth, and Hernández was then drilled with a 2-0 pitch to load the bases for none other than Soto. But the slugger fell behind in the count 0-2, then popped up Melancon's final pitch to end the game.

"I just go out there. If I miss, I miss," Soto said. "I'm not going to be scared to miss. I just go out there and try to do my job. If it goes my way, that's great. If not, I'm going to get another chance."

The Diamondbacks came to town as the majors’ worst-hitting club, and that reputation was only bolstered when the Nationals held them to one total run during Tuesday’s doubleheader sweep. Then something odd happened: Arizona started racking up hits like crazy. The D-backs scored 11 runs during Wednesday’s blowout. And they showed up today ready to rock Josh Rogers out of the park.

Three different hitters blasted home runs off Rogers, accounting for all four of their runs off him. The lefty served up opposite-field solo shots to Matt Davidson in the top of the first and Jake McCarthy in the top of the second. Then, just when it appeared he was settling down, he served up a two-run homer to Cooper Hummel in the top of the fifth.

So it was that Rogers stood on the mound with one out in the fifth and watched his manager emerge from the dugout to take the ball from him. It was the second straight time Rogers was pulled after 4 1/3 innings following a strong season debut in Atlanta, and the early hook was warranted even though he threw a modest 71 pitches.

"Just not really good pitches," Rogers said of the three home runs he surrendered. "Get two outs in the first, give up a homer. Go out there for the second, two outs in the second, give up a homer on bad breaking balls. Just two bad pitches. ... It wasn't good today."

It did leave the Nationals needing to mount a late rally to reverse the season’s most accurate predictor of success or failure. They entered the day 6-1 when their starter completed at least five innings, 0-7 when he didn’t.

A comeback was within reach on this late afternoon, but it required way more sustained offense than the lineup put forth against Diamondbacks starter Zach Davies, who retired the first eight batters he faced without allowing a ball to leave the infield.

The Nats finally struck in the top of the fourth, courtesy the heart of their order. Soto opened the inning with his league-leading 15th walk. Cruz then delivered his best swing of the young season, turning on a Davies sinker and launching it 423 feet down the left field line, nearly reaching the concourse.

"The one thing I noticed today was he was getting ready really early," Martinez said. "He was getting his foot down on time, but for me it's just a matter of time. This guy is going to hit; we know that. But once he starts doing that, he'll start driving the balls, and you'll start seeing a lot more balls leaving the park."

Cruz’s second homer of the year, with an eye-popping exit velocity of 112.5 mph, seemed like it might jumpstart the Nationals lineup against Davies. It did anything but.

The Nationals’ “B” bullpen did everything in its power to keep the game close, with Victor Arano, Sam Clay, Austin Voth, newly promoted Erasmo Ramírez and Andres Machado combining to toss 4 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of Rogers.

But with the Nationals lineup unable to finish off a late rally that was there for the taking, it was all in vain. Even with the best hitter on the planet at the plate with everything on the line.

"Pat him on the back, and I told him the same thing I told you guys: 'I can't wait until you're up with the bases loaded again ... and again and again,' " Martinez said. "More times than not, he'll come through."

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