Nats fall in 10th after Finnegan's first blown save since March (updated)

PHILADELPHIA – MacKenzie Gore put forth one of the best starts of his burgeoning career. CJ Abrams put together four quality at-bats. Jesse Winker delivered the clutch hit that gave the Nationals the lead in the top of the ninth.

So how did they still manage to lose, 4-3, to the Phillies tonight? With a rare, bottom-of-the-ninth meltdown the likes of which they hadn’t experienced in about six weeks, followed by a less dramatic final blow in the bottom of the 10th, all off one of the most dominant closers in the sport.

One out away from pulling off one of their most impressive wins of the season, the Nats instead watched in horror as Kyle Finnegan gave up a game-tying homer to Kody Clemens for his first blown save and first earned run allowed since March 31 in Cincinnati.

"It's just upsetting that I wasn't able to get those last three outs," said Finnegan, who entered with a 1.56 ERA, 0.923 WHIP and league-leading 13 saves in 14 attempts. "We played a great game. We deserved to win. It's my job to go in there and just continue what we had already accomplished and get three outs. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do that tonight." 

Finnegan managed to escape the ninth without any more damage, even after Eddie Rosario dropped a fly ball that would’ve ended the inning. But when his teammates couldn’t drive in their automatic runner in the top of the 10th, Finnegan retook the mound for the bottom of the inning and proceeded to take the loss.

The Nats opted to intentionally walk Kyle Schwarber to open the final frame, setting up a potential double play. After J.T. Realmuto sent a fly ball to center to advance the lead runner to third, Finnegan had to face Bryce Harper with the game on the line. He retired Harper, but on a fly ball that was hit plenty deep enough to score the winning run without a play at the plate.

Did manager Davey Martinez consider intentionally walking Harper, which would have loaded the bases for the also-tough Alec Bohm?

"Bohm's been really good; he's got 37 RBIs," Martinez said. "Once we had two strikes on Harper ... if we would've fallen behind 2-0 (or) 3-0, then things might have been different. But he had two strikes on him. ... As good as Finn has been, I'm not going to fault him for today. He's been outstanding."

The Nationals had rallied to take the lead in the top of the ninth, with Winker’s two-out RBI single to center coming moments after Rosario hustled down the line to narrowly beat out what would’ve been an inning-ending double play.

That, though, was one of only two hits they delivered in 14 at-bats with runners in scoring position. They ended five innings tonight with a strikeout with a runner on either second or third. They ended another with a double play.

"We hit the ball better today - we had 12 hits - but we have to capitalize early," Martinez said. "And don't make it so close. Try to score some runs and get ahead."

The Nats still needed eight huge outs from their bullpen after Gore went 6 1/3 innings while allowing two runs. They got seven of them.

Knotted in a tie game in the bottom of the eighth, Martinez pulled out all the bullpen stops to try to keep the game tied. Robert Garcia entered to face the top of the Phillies lineup and managed to retire Schwarber on a screaming liner to short before striking out Bryce Harper. Hunter Harvey then entered to face Bohm with two on and two out and watched as Victor Robles made a dramatic, sliding catch near the right field corner to keep the game tied heading to the ninth.

The late drama in some ways overshadowed Gore’s excellent start. How locked in was the lefty? He opened the outing with a five-pitch walk of Schwarber, then retired the next eight batters he faced. He walked Schwarber again with two outs in the third, then got J.T. Realmuto to pop up, giving him three hitless innings on 45 pitches.

"I didn't think my stuff was very good," Gore admitted. "But we went at guys. We didn't miss many bats today, but it's also a good lineup that's seen me a lot, and we just went at them. We got behind in some counts and made some good pitches to get soft contact and get them out. That's kind of what it was about today."

The Phillies got to Gore ever so slightly in the fourth, thanks to back-to-back singles from Harper and Bohm, but even more thanks to Harper stealing third without a throw. That put him in position to score on Bryson Stott’s double-play grounder, something he could not have done had he still been leading off second base.

No matter, because Gore went right back to work after that minor hiccup, retiring eight of the next nine batters he faced. The only blemish? Another walk of Schwarber that was immediately erased with a double play.

His pitch count still a modest 81, Gore couldn’t wait to jog back to the mound for the seventh inning, something he had previously done only four times as a major leaguer. And when he struck out Bohm with a beautiful changeup for the first out, he looked like he was in total control.

Unfortunately, the good vibes disappeared in a flash. Gore fell behind in the count 3-1 to Stott, then for one of the only times tonight left a fastball up in the zone in a fastball count. Stott crushed it to right, and the sellout crowd knew right away how to react.

"I missed my location," Gore said. "He's an away guy, and I threw it middle-in. In that count, he's going to open up and try to get the head out, and that's what he did." 

Stott rounded the bases to a roar, his 370-foot blast deep enough to clear the fence here and in three other major league parks (Yankee Stadium, Angel Stadium, Great American Ball Park). And with the game now tied, Martinez walked to the mound to take the ball from his young lefty. It was unquestionably one of the best starts of his career. And yet it still felt disappointing in the moment.

"He gave us everything he had," Martinez said. "If he stays right there, he's going to win a lot of games. That was outstanding. ... For him to do what he did today, that was fun to watch."

The last three games not only saw the Nationals score few runs but produce precious few hits to begin with: 11 total across those 27 innings, to be precise. So when they opened tonight’s game with back-to-back-to-back singles, that itself represented significant progress.

Abrams, Ildemaro Vargas and Joey Meneses were the ones to do it, jumping on Phillies left-hander Cristopher Sánchez to take a 1-0 lead, the first first-inning run the Nats had scored in their last 11 games.

But with a chance to add to that lead, they again faltered with runners in scoring position, with Nick Senzel grounding into a double play and Riley Adams striking out. That trend continued in the third, when Abrams and Vargas both singled again but Meneses grounded into a double play to kill the rally. And when Senzel led off the fourth with a double but could not score, the frustration seemed to reach a fever pitch.

"We had a chance to put the game away early," Martinez said. "We didn't do it."

So the Nationals decided to score their second run without ever actually taking an at-bat with a runner in scoring position. They did this by taking advantage of their two fastest players. Jacob Young got things started in the fifth with a one-out single. Then with Abrams at the plate, Young took off for second. And when Abrams lined another single (his third of the game) to right, Young kept on running.

Ricky Gutierrez furiously waved him around third, which looked like a gamble, except with Abrams also rounding first at the same time, Nick Castellanos opted to throw to second to record the easier out. That allowed Young to score all the way from first on a single without there even being a play at the plate.

"I was rounding first, and I heard (Gerardo) Parra say: 'Go! Go! Go!'" Abrams said. "So I just went. It was all for a reason."

The manufactured run gave the Nats a 2-1 lead. It wasn’t much. But the way Gore pitched tonight, it felt like it might be enough. And it was, until his 93rd and final pitch.

And even after all that, the Nationals still found themselves in position to win with one out to go. That they ended the night with their sixth loss in seven games (five of them by only one or two runs) made it sting all the more.

"It shows that we can play with anybody in our division, anybody in our league," Finnegan said. "We're going to try to go out and prove that tomorrow." 

Game 45 lineups: Nats at Phillies
Game 44 lineups: Nats at Phillies

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