PHOENIX – This looked like one of those nights when the Nationals would be left to focus on the positives that emerged from a nondescript loss. Most notably, an ace-like performance from MacKenzie Gore.
Then this looked like one of those nights when the Nationals would celebrate a stunning victory thanks to the five runs they scored in the top of the ninth behind the offensive exploits of Keibert Ruiz, Ildemaro Vargas and Lane Thomas.
But at the end of a wild Saturday night in the desert, all the Nats could do was trudge off the field having suffered their toughest loss of the season, falling to the Diamondbacks, 8-7, after Kyle Finnegan blew an unexpected save opportunity in the bottom of the ninth in agonizing fashion.
"I can't say enough about what our team did, behind like that and coming back," manager Davey Martinez said. "It shows a lot of fight. It shows a lot of the character of our ballclub. And you've got a team over there that's fighting back. Look, we made it a battle. At the end, we couldn't hold the lead."
Entrusted with a one-run lead thanks to his teammates' shocking rally in the top of the inning, Finnegan immediately gave it back on Lourdes Gurriel Jr.'s leadoff homer to left. Despite the pleas of Stone Garrett that a fan reached over the fence to interfere with his play, league officials in New York upheld the home run call, leaving the game tied.
Finnegan then loaded the bases via a single, a walk and an intentional walk, only to issue one final walk to pinch-hitter Pavin Smith on five pitches, allowing the winning run to trot home.
"That one hurts, because we made such a great comeback," said Finnegan, who had converted his last six save attempts, but hadn't enjoyed a clean inning since April 26 in New York. "The guys did everything you could ask for to win a tough game like that, and I just wasn't able to do my job tonight and secure us the win."
That spoiled a stunning rally in the top of the ninth. The Nationals trailed by four runs entering the final frame, but Ruiz jump-started things with a towering homer to right. Even so, things looked like they would fizzle after that when Garrett struck out and Dominic Smith grounded out.
But Alex Call drew a two-out walk, forcing Arizona manager Torey Lovullo to summon closer Andrew Chafin. Michael Chavis' single brought Ildemaro Vargas to the plate representing the tying run, and the utilityman delivered his biggest hit of the season, lining a single to left to score both runs. Lane Thomas then gave them the lead with a no-doubt homer to left, completing the five-run rally with authority.
"Just give yourself a chance to put a good swing on something," Thomas said of his approach in that spot. "Just think through an at-bat and understand the situation, what they're trying to do to me. I just happened to put a good at-bat together, put a good swing on a pitch that was up."
All of this came long after Gore departed, but his start was impressive nonetheless, further cementing his status as this organization’s burgeoning ace. Both because of the results, but especially because of the way he did it in the bottom of the sixth.
Having already allowed the tying run to score on one of several spiked breaking balls, Gore made a nifty play to field Dominic Fletcher’s sacrifice bunt and fired a strike to first base to record the inning’s first out. After seeing the left-hander grimace for a moment after stubbing his toe, Martinez and athletic trainer Dale Gilbert jogged to the mound to check on their starter. Gore quickly shrugged them off and continued to pitch.
"He can wave me off all he wants," Martinez said with a laugh. "I've got to check. I'm going to get the trainer out there to make sure he's OK."
And how did the 24-year-old respond? With two runners in scoring position, he struck out Nick Ahmed with a 97 mph fastball and Gabriel Moreno with a 95 mph fastball, yelling with delight as he hopped off the mound and returned to the dugout.
"We located well," Gore said. "We made pitches in that inning when we needed to, to limit the damage."
Gore can downplay the significance, but it was the kind of pitching sequence only a few starters in Nationals history have been capable of pulling off. You can probably rattle off their names without having to pause to think about it.
Gore still has a long way to go to match the careers of those who came before him. But his performance tonight – two runs allowed in six innings, with one walk and nine strikeouts – was further evidence he could become the organization’s next ace.
"Nine batters he was ahead, eight of them he struck out. The other one hit into a double play," Martinez said. "I mean, that's a tall tale of what MacKenzie can do."
On the heels of a somewhat-ragged start against the Cubs in which he gave up seven hits in four-plus innings and needing 102 pitches to do it, Gore took the mound tonight with some extra motivation to get his groove back.
Early on, he looked like he might be in serious trouble. Emmanuel Rivera crushed a first-inning curveball 394 feet to left field for a quick 1-0 Diamondbacks lead. And 12 batters in, Gore had surrendered five hits in total.
Gore may have given up some loud contact, but the best thing he did tonight was keep the ball in the zone. He did not issue a walk until the sixth. He threw 66 percent of his pitches for strikes. And he turned to his slider and curveball to put away Arizona’s hitters, ultimately striking out nine.
Had his Nationals teammates been able to take fuller advantage of a couple of scoring opportunities against Diamondbacks starter Tommy Henry, Gore might well have come away with his fourth win. Alas, they ran themselves into a pair of outs on the bases, with Victor Robles caught stealing in the third – Call would pinch-hit for him the following inning after Robles hurt his back on his slide – and Thomas thrown out trying to advance on a pitch that didn’t scoot far enough away from the plate.
Thomas’ out proved particularly costly because he might’ve scored ahead of Luis García and Joey Meneses on Ruiz’s double down the left field line. Instead, Ruiz had to settle for two RBIs, not three, on the play, which snapped his 0-for-17 slump.
Carl Edwards Jr. would surrender the go-ahead run in relief of Gore in the bottom of the seventh. Alek Thomas led off with a sharp grounder down the first base line that skipped past an awkward Dominic Smith, then raced his way around the bases to slide in with a leadoff triple. Moments later, Ketel Marte blooped a single into shallow center field, bringing Thomas home with what would prove to be the game-winning run for Arizona.
Mason Thompson then surrendered three insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth, the right-hander struggling for the second straight appearance after a dominant run prior to that.
Who knew how much more drama was still to come on a wild night in Phoenix?
"Look, we were down (four) runs going into the ninth," Martinez said. "We come back and put up a five-spot. That's awesome. I already went out there and told them: 'Keep your heads up. You showed a lot of character. You showed a lot of heart. Keep playing with that energy. We'll get on top of these games.'"