Nats drop another low-scoring game and another series (updated)

They waited around all afternoon in the summerlike heat and humidity, waiting for the home team to give itself a legitimate chance to score and get itself back into a very winnable game.

And when the situation finally presented itself in the bottom of the seventh, and then again in the bottom of the ninth, the crowd of 21,837 tried to muster up the energy to encourage the Nationals to come through at last in a big spot.

In each case, the air was sucked back out of the ballpark. And by day's end, the Nats had suffered another demoralizing loss, this one by the count of 3-2 in the rubber game of their series against the Twins.

Tuesday night’s 10-0 blowout was no fun at all. But this wasn’t any more enjoyable, not with the Nationals lineup yet again unable to mount any semblance of sustained offense. As has been the case too often the last two weeks, the opportunity to win a low-scoring game was right before their eyes, thanks to another effective pitching performance from Jake Irvin and the bullpen.

But as has too often been the case as well, the Nats simply couldn’t take advantage of it. They’ve now lost nine of their last 11, and in seven of those games they’ve scored two or fewer runs.

"Obviously it's frustrating losing close games," said Joey Gallo, one of the prime culprits of today's loss. "As hitters, we feel like could've taken the swing to win that game for us. The pitchers have, for the most part, been doing a great job. So it's a little bit on us to score some more runs. That's just going to be what we strive to do in the future."

The Nationals' best opportunity today came in the seventh. Trailing 2-0, they put themselves in an advantageous position when Luis García Jr. singled and Ildemaro Vargas followed with a double. But they still needed to drive both guys in, and that was no guarantee with this particular lineup.

Gallo proceeded to strike out looking at a fastball from left-hander Kody Funderburk, leaving his season RBI total stuck on five (lowest among all National League players with at least 100 plate appearances). Keibert Ruiz, pinch-hitting for Riley Adams against hard-throwing righty Griffin Jax, managed to get bat on ball but grounded out to first to bring home one run in exchange for the second out of the inning. And Jacob Young briefly thought he had a game-tying single up the middle, only to be robbed by a diving Carlos Correa, who hopped to his feet and threw out one of the fastest baserunners in the majors to get out of the inning.

"We've just got to work better at-bats. We just do," manager Davey Martinez said. "We've got to put the ball in play some of those at-bats."

A key insurance run off Hunter Harvey in the top of the ninth left the Nationals needing to rally from two runs down in the ninth. So even when Joey Meneses led off the inning with a homer off Twins closer Jhoan Duran, more work was needed. García did follow with a single, and pinch-runner Nasim Nuñez advanced to second when Vargas (shockingly the team's best hitter of late) put down a sacrifice bunt.

"The first time, he bunted on his own," Martinez said of Vargas, who put forth a half-attempt on the first pitch and pulled his bat back, taking strike one, before getting the sacrifice down on the next pitch. "Once he got to 0-1, I put the bunt on. Just to get the guy to second base. (Duran) can be wild. Try to get (Nuñez) to third base. A little blooper or something scores Nuñez."

But that left the game in the hands of two of the team's least productive hitters: Gallo and Ruiz. Gallo struck out swinging at a 3-2 fastball. Ruiz grounded out weakly to second.

"Obviously, you know the situation, and know there's runners in scoring position. You want to get them in," said Gallo, now 2-for-25 with 14 strikeouts in those situations. "I haven't done a great job of that. ... You're trying to do whatever the game is asking you to do, and unfortunately, I wasn't able to do that today."

"I'm trying to be aggressive, especially with runners in scoring position," said Ruiz, now 3-for-24 in those spots. "Maybe I need to switch the plan, or do something different."

The Nats had seen Twins starter Simeon Woods Richardson before, scoring five runs off him last year in a long-relief appearance. So Woods Richardson wasn’t a complete mystery to them today. They just made it look that way.

Only five batters reached against the right-hander: three via single, one via walk, one via hit-by-pitch. Two of them reached scoring position, but neither advanced beyond second base. The only real opportunities came in the third, when CJ Abrams chased several pitches out of the zone before flying out to left, and in the fourth, when Gallo sent a fly ball to the warning track in right to strand two.

Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, to the shock of just about everyone in the park, pulled his young starter with two outs in the fifth, his pitch count a season-low 77. Perhaps this struggling Nationals lineup would fare better against a reliever?

Not the first reliever they faced. Steven Okert entered (via the bullpen cart!) and immediately got Abrams to fly out on the first pitch, then retired the side in the sixth to keep the home team scoreless.

With little run support to help him out, Irvin had to be perfect against his hometown team. The Bloomington, Minn., native nearly was, penalized on only two of the 84 pitches he threw in the game.

The first was a first-pitch fastball to Max Kepler, who led off the top of the second with a solo shot to right for a 1-0 lead. The second was a first-pitch curveball to Carlos Correa, who mashed it to left for a solo homer and a 2-0 lead in the top of the sixth.

"They've been aggressive all series," Irvin said. "They've been swinging like that all series. That's kind of the identity of their team: They hit home runs. And when they hit home runs, they win games. I think they look for their pitch, look for it early, and try to keyhole that first pitch."

Otherwise, Irvin was outstanding, scattering three singles, issuing zero walks and reaching the seventh inning for the second time in his last three starts. He was able to complete that final frame earlier this month at Fenway Park. He couldn’t do it today, pulled after he plunked Willi Castro to put two on with one out.

Martinez summoned Robert Garcia, his only left-hander in the bullpen, but Garcia actually wound up retiring two right-handed batters to escape the jam and keep his team in the game.

Nationals pitchers have done an exceptional job lately keeping their team in the game. Their counterparts at the plate, however, haven't held up their end of the bargain.

"It would've worked out well," Martinez said. "But like I said, we just couldn't score."

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