The Nationals were able to chip away at a 4-1 Cubs lead on Tuesday night. Home runs by Luke Voit and Lane Thomas in the eight inning sent the game to extras. CJ Abrams’ first hit and RBI as a National extended the game to the 11th.
Even in an eventual loss, the boys battled multiple times.
Try as they might, there was no late-inning rally Wednesday, as the Nationals dropped the series finale 3-2 to the Cubs in front of 28,302 fans on a beautiful 78-degree day in the District.
A late rally was made necessary by some back and forth between the two teams in the middle innings. With the Cubs up 2-1 in the bottom of the sixth, the Nats tied the game with some small ball action.
Joey Meneses led off the frame with a double into the left-field corner, extending his hitting streak to 11 games and knocking Cubs starter Drew Smyly from the game.
Right-hander Erich Uelmen came in from the Chicago bullpen and gave up a grounder to Voit. But miscommunication between the pitcher and first baseman P.J. Higgins at the bag allowed Voit to reach, moving Meneses to third. Nelson Cruz then seemingly grounded into an inning-ending double play, but the Nats challenged outs at both second and first.
After review, the call at second base stood, but the call at first was overturned, meaning Cruz was safe and Meneses scored to tie the game at 2-2.
But the Cubbies answered right back in the top of the seventh against two veteran relievers out of the Nats ‘pen.
Jake McGee started the inning and gave up a leadoff double to Franmil Reyes. After back-to-back strikeouts, Davey Martinez brought in Steve Cishek to face Yan Gomes with a chance to get out of the inning.
The former National catcher was not friendly in his first game back in D.C. since being traded to the Athletics at last year’s deadline. Gomes slapped a down-and-away pitch into right field for an RBI single and a 3-2 Cubs lead.
“Just trying to get ahead right there,” Cishek said after the game. “Thought I made a couple of good pitches early, but had to battle back. I got back into a count where I tried to put him away with my four-seam fastball, which has been my go to pitch the majority of this season. It's honestly been my best pitch this year. So just want to go after him with my best pitch and he did a good job putting it in right field.”
“I know Gomes has taken McGee deep before,” Martinez said of the decision to bring in the sidearm reliever. “Cishek was the right guy for that spot.”
Thomas, doing his thing against the National League Central, put the Nats in position for a possible late rally with a one-out double in eighth and advancing to third on a wild pitch.
But Meneses popped up to shallow right and Voit struck out to end the last true threat, as the Nats went quietly in the ninth.
“It's incredibly frustrating just giving up your teammates' runs, and it ended up costing us the ballgame,” Cishek said. “It's a terrible feeling, but at the same time, it happens and we just got to bounce back and try to grow from it.”
The Nats’ early offense came on a Keibert Ruiz double and César Hernández RBI single in the second.
“He's got a really good fastball," Ruiz said of Smyly. “He'll get on you quick and he was making pitches. And he got us.”
A positive development for the Nationals was Cory Abbott’s strong start on the mound. It was almost as if he listened to Martinez’s pregame press conference when the Nationals manager mentioned the need for length from his starting pitchers when talking about a possible promotion for top pitching prospect Cade Cavalli.
“Just attacking the bottom part of the zone,” Abbott said of his game plan. “Using my slider. Basically just letting them swing at it, get ground balls and try to go as long as possible.”
Facing his former team for the first time, Abbott turned in his best start as a National, completing a career-high six innings and allowing only two runs while striking out five.
Abbott was strong throughout the afternoon, only running into trouble in the fifth inning and making one mistake. After a leadoff walk and quick chat with pitching coach Jim Hickey, he was able to retire the next two batters and run the count full against No. 9 hitter Higgins. Needing only one pitch to get out of the inning, Abbott left a curveball up in the zone for Higgins to hit into the visitors bullpen for a 2-1 lead.
“I would say basically when I gave it up the P.J.,” Abbott said of his emotions facing his former team. “He caught me a lot throughout the minors and stuff, so that was kind of a little dagger. But not too much. Just kind of handling business.”
The right-hander had retired 10 of the last 11 batters he faced before the go-ahead home run. But he then retired the next four batters to complete his first quality start.
“Today, he was actually a lot slower working than he has been,” Martinez said of Abbott. “I didn't talk to him during the game, but I don't know if he did it by design, kind of slow his heartbeat down a little bit. But he worked a little bit slower today. And for him, it worked today, right? We talked about him might being a little amped up before the game because his face is old teammates. But he did well. He calmed himself down a little bit and did well.”
It turns out, he did do slow down by design, thanks to some advice he received from Stephen Strasburg after his rough outing in Philadelphia two starts ago.
“Yes, I was,” Abbott said of intentionally slowing down on the mound. “Talking to Strasburg last couple of times with my outings and stuff, that was kind of a topic to bring up and using my breath to kind of reset and then attack. Got good results.
“I just went up to him and I was like, 'Hey, I need some help.' But other than that, he's been pretty good … it's been very helpful.”
The Nationals failed to win their sixth straight series, seventh since the All-Star break and 12th of their last 13. And they may not have too many more chances down the stretch as the Reds, A’s and Marlins (the last of which they’re 1-12 against this season) are the only teams left on their schedule not in contention for the postseason.
The tough final stretch of the season starts tomorrow with a six-game West Coast road trip to San Diego and Seattle.
“We just got to continue to battle, continue to work," Martinez said. "I think we're playing good baseball. Our defense is playing a lot better. Today was just, there was no run production. I thought we had a chance to win the game. We just we couldn't score runs.”