Nats fall again to Mets, Candelario avoids injury (updated)

NEW YORK – Josiah Gray managed to pull it off Thursday night, playing with fire but emerging unscathed for six scoreless innings. MacKenzie Gore tried to pull off the same feat tonight at Citi Field, until he finally got burned at a most inopportune moment.

After pitching out of jams in each of his first four innings, Gore couldn’t pitch out of his last one in the fifth. The Nationals left-hander hung a slider to Pete Alonso and watched the ball soar to left field, the decisive three-run blow in what wound up a 5-1 loss to the Mets that might've been even more damaging had Jeimer Candelario suffered a significant injury in the top of the eighth.

Candelario, fortunately, appears to be fine after getting twisted up sliding into second base while trying to stretch a single into a double and briefly feeling discomfort in his left shoulder.

On that aggressive baserunning play with his team down four runs, Candelario beat the throw to second but had to try to touch the base with his left hand after his feet got twisted up. In the process, he grabbed second base umpire Vic Carapazza, and that caused whatever pain he felt in his own arm, prompting him to motion to the dugout for assistance. 

"Everything's good, everything's good," Candelario insisted. "I just tried to come back, but the umpire was right there. It's part of the game. It was scary, but I'm good."

Candelario would eventually walk off the field alongside manager Davey Martinez and director of athletic training Paul Lessard, shaking his head in frustration. That frustration, it turns out, was more about making the out than being hurt. Candelario, who was serving as the Nationals' designated hitter tonight instead of playing his usual third base, took swings in the cage afterward and would've been OK to bat if his spot in the lineup somehow came up again.

Thus, the Nats could breathe a sigh of relief, because an injury of consequence to Candelario could throw a wrench into their trade deadline plans. The 29-year-old is far and away their most likely trade chip before Tuesday’s deadline, enjoying a bounceback year and set to become a free agent this fall.

That hold-your-breath moment came late in another frustrating game at Citi Field for the visitors, one that followed nearly an identical path to Thursday’s series opener for a while. The Nationals were unable to produce anything at the plate until late in the game, forcing their pitching staff to be perfect.

Gray was up to the task in the opener, making it through six innings without surrendering a run before the bullpen gave up two critical runs in the eighth. Gore tried to follow the same path, and he nearly duplicated his rotation mate’s effort.

Gore didn’t enjoy a single 1-2-3 inning. He let a runner reach base every single frame. He also fell behind most hitters, throwing first-pitch strikes to only eight of the 23 batters he faced. But he managed to get the job done when he needed to, notching back-to-back strikeouts in the second to strand a pair, then overcoming a leadoff walk in the third.

Ultimately, it was back-to-back walks in the fifth that proved Gore’s undoing. He put both No. 8 hitter Brett Baty and No. 9 hitter Francisco Alvarez on via free pass, and that meant he had to navigate the top of the Mets lineup in another high-stress situation.

"The walks were bad," he said. "It's just frustrating, because we had done a better job of that lately. At least getting ahead of guys. And then today, even the innings before it wasn't great. It's just frustrating."

Gore was able to induce a couple of harmless fly balls out of Brandon Nimmo and Francisco Lindor, but then came the hanging slider to Alonso, who left no doubt about the end result of the pitch. The ball finally landed in the second deck in left field, some 453 feet from the plate as Gore stood on the mound, unable to do anything about it.

"Well, a slider down the middle is a big no-no for him, and that's what he got," the lefty said. "And when he gets those, that's what he does."

Gore's night would end at the completion of the inning, his pitch count up to 95, his ERA up to 4.42.

"It's the walks," Martinez said. "When he's throwing strikes and he's getting ahead, he's really good. Tonight, he was really good until he walked those two guys (in the fifth)."

Like Gray the previous night, Gore might have enjoyed a better outcome with just a little bit of run support. Alas, the Nationals provided him even less than they provided Gray (at least while the starter was on the mound).

Max Scherzer, who entered with a 4.20 ERA for a monster-payroll Mets team that appears to be selling at the trade deadline, carried a shutout into the seventh. The Nats had only a couple of chances to do anything against their former ace, with Alex Call grounding out to strand the bases loaded in the second and Ildemaro Vargas getting thrown out trying to steal second in what could’ve been a rally in the fifth.

The only member of this lineup who has shown any ability to hit Scherzer with any regularity is Luis García, who surprisingly has enjoyed real success against the three-time Cy Young Award winner and continued the trend tonight. García doubled down the right field line in the second, then he launched a leadoff homer to right-center, leaving the young second baseman an impressive 6-for-11 in his career against Scherzer.

"To be honest, I can't even tell you (why I've had that success)," García said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "I feel like maybe I go in there with greater focus, because it is Max Scherzer, and he's a very good pitcher. I think one of his best pitches, if not his best pitch, is his fastball. And I'm a good fastball hitter, so maybe that's it."

That’s all the Nationals would manage on this night, though. The Mets still had some more thump in them, with Alonso blasting his second homer of the game, this time getting reliever Rico Garcia in the bottom of the seventh to extend the lead and the visitors’ misery.

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