Nats lose in ninth, still can't pull off series sweep (updated)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For as much progress as they’ve made this season, especially in the young pitching department, one achievement continues to elude the Nationals: The series sweep.

You’ve probably heard this one by now, but to reiterate: The Nats have not swept a three-game series since June 2021 against the Pirates, and they haven’t swept a road series since August 2019 at Wrigley Field. They’ve had their fair share of opportunities to do it since, including two chances earlier this season against the Twins and Mets, but they entered this afternoon’s finale at Kauffman Stadium still searching for that coveted sweep.

MacKenzie Gore did everything in his power to make it happen, striking out a career-high 11 over seven innings of one-run ball. The Nationals lineup did the bare minimum to put the team in position, scoring two runs in the fourth but nothing else. That left little margin for error for the bullpen, the challenge all the greater with all of that group's top arms unavailable again due to recent usage.

So it was left to Chad Kuhl to try to close it out. That plan worked Friday night. It did not work today, with Kuhl surrendering the game-tying homer in the eighth and then the game-winning run (albeit an unearned run) in the ninth to leave the Nats dealing with the sting of a 3-2 walk-off loss.

"You wanted the sweep today," said Dominic Smith, whose ninth inning error proved especially costly. "We come here every day to win. We're not satisfied with just winning a series. To come up today with a chance to have a sweep ... that was something that was definitely on our minds that we wanted to achieve. We had multiple opportunities to do that. For it to go out like that, it's definitely a tough feeling."

Having played nothing but close games all week, Davey Martinez again decided he couldn’t ask his usual late-inning relievers to finish this one, even after Gore churned out seven brilliant innings. Hunter Harvey, Kyle Finnegan and Carl Edwards Jr. all would’ve been pitching for the fourth time in five days.

So for the second time in three days, Martinez entrusted the game to Kuhl. The veteran starter-turned-long reliever got the job done Friday night to earn his first career save. This outing didn't proceed nearly in the same fashion: It took only four pitches in the bottom of the eighth for Kuhl to give up the game-tying run, with Edward Olivares destroying a slider down the left field line to make it 2-2.

Kuhl actually pitched much better after that and looked like he would get out of the ninth and send the game to extra innings. But Smith let MJ Melendez's routine grounder to first roll right through his legs for a costly two-base error.

Smith, who FanGraphs rates as the fourth-best defensive first baseman in the majors this season, noted the hard surface at Kauffman Stadium was on his mind as the ball rolled toward him.

"That's why I went down to a knee; I wanted to corral it," Smith said. "It just kind of took a little, funny bounce. My glove went up, it went under it. That's something that hasn't happened to me my whole life, let alone in the big leagues. It stings."

Two batters later, Michael Massey's sinking liner to right fell just in front of Lane Thomas, who pulled up to play the ball on a short hop instead of attempting an all-or-nothing dive. Thomas couldn't recover in time to make the throw to the plate as Melendez scored the game-winning run.

"It was a tough one," Thomas said. "It was kind of top-spinning at me. Looking back, I probably should've dove. But it's one of those things where if I dove, he's definitely going to score. The ball got on me quick. I wish I could've made a better play at home. It's just one of those in-between plays where if you dive and miss it, the game's over. Or I thought I might've had a chance to throw him out."

"It's a do-or-die play," Martinez said. "You can't let that ball bounce in front of you like that. You've got to come catch it. If it gets by you, it gets by you, and the game's over anyway."

Gore entered this start seeking not only positive results but more efficiency after some laborious recent outings. He had failed to complete five innings in three of his last five appearances, twice topping the 100-pitch mark at that early juncture in the game.

When he opened this one with a double surrendered to Nick Pratto on a 2-0 count, there were perhaps some concerns inside the visiting dugout about a repeat performance. Gore, though, quickly buckled down and began to make quick work of an overwhelmed Kansas City lineup.

The lefty completed his first inning on only 14 pitches. He retired the side in the second on 16. He completed the third on 15. He struck out the side in the fourth on only 13.

Gore did all this with a rather simple approach: More than 50 percent of his pitches were fastballs, and why not? The Royals couldn’t touch that bread-and-butter pitch, so he just kept throwing it until they proved otherwise.

"I talk about him attacking the zone down with his fastball," Martinez said. "Everything plays off the fastball down. He threw the ball down really well today. Great outing by him. It stinks that he couldn't get the win."

A 1-2-3 bottom of the sixth left Gore retreating to the dugout with his pitch count still a manageable 88, so Martinez let him return to the mound for the bottom of the seventh, the first time he’s done that since joining the organization last summer.

The shutout bid would come to an end two batters later when Melendez drove a fastball the other way for a solo homer to left-center. How did Gore respond? By striking out the next two batters he faced, finishing his start with a flourish and establishing a new career high in strikeouts while throwing a whopping 75 of his 106 pitches for strikes, 23 of those swings and misses.

"It's like I've talked about: I get two strikes, and I haven't been executing," he said. "You don't have to throw a lot of pitches to strike guys out, if you execute. I just did a better job of that today."

Gore departed with a 2-1 lead intact, both runs scoring in the top of the fourth thanks to the hitting exploits of a couple of backups who got the chance to start the series finale.

Ildemaro Vargas, giving shortstop CJ Abrams a rare breather, mashed a ball 384 feet to left field yet couldn’t quite earn a free trip around the bases because the ball landed on top of the padded wall and then ricocheted back into play. It would’ve been a homer in 27 other ballparks, but not in this one (or Camden Yards or Truist Park, for that matter).

Vargas had to hold at second base with an RBI double, but no harm was done because Michael Chavis (giving third baseman Jeimer Candelario a rare day off) singled to center to bring Vargas home and make it 2-0.

There would be a multitude of opportunities to add more during the course of the game, but the Nationals could not convert. They finished 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position, a stat that probably has more to do with their inability to complete the elusive sweep today than the availability of the bullpen.

"We left 11 guys on base today," Martinez said. "All day long we had opportunities. We just couldn't capitalize. ... When you do that, you leave the door wide open for these things to happen."

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