Nats make Dodgers sweat before falling apart late (updated)

LOS ANGELES – There was a moment in the top of the seventh tonight that left a crowd of 46,571 at Dodger Stadium booing the home club for letting the Nationals claw their way back into a game that felt like it had already been decided for the boys in white uniforms and royal blue caps.

The names in the visiting dugout have long since changed from those who occupied that same space 3 1/2 years ago, when the stakes were far greater but the sentiment from the L.A. crowd was the same. How could Dave Roberts’ star-studded team let Davey Martinez’s brand of upstarts spoil their predestined celebration?

Alas, it wasn’t to be on this night. Despite rallying in the top of the seventh to get back within a run, the Nationals gave it right back to the Dodgers in the bottom of the inning and then a bunch more in the eighth, and were ultimately left to accept a 9-3 loss, their third straight.

"A team like that, I feel like you tack on a few and you give them a little glimpse of a chance to get back in the game, and they take advantage of it," outfielder Lane Thomas said. "That's the difference between the really good teams in the league and the teams that are not at that level yet."

The boys could take some comfort in the way they battled back from an early 4-1 deficit. When Roberts pulled a dominant Tony Gonsolin after six innings and only 70 pitches, the Nats took full advantage. They got a leadoff homer from Keibert Ruiz off Alex Vesia to open the seventh, then a two-out double from Thomas and an RBI single from Luis García to make it 4-3 and make the natives more than a little restless.

"I just liked the at-bats," manager Davey Martinez said. "I was hoping we would keep the game at 4-3 and see what happens later in the game."

But Andrés Machado, tasked with facing the top of the Los Angeles lineup in the seventh after retiring the bottom of the order in the sixth, fell apart. He allowed four straight batters to reach, with J.D. Martinez’s two-run homer to center the defining blow to give the Dodgers a comfortable lead again.

They would add another three runs off Mason Thompson in the eighth, an unsightly inning that included a hit-by-pitch, two errors, a run-scoring wild pitch and a towering homer by Freddie Freeman (who finished 4-for-5 on the night).

"They have a really good team," said Ruiz, a former Dodgers prospect himself. "Really good hitters, and they don't miss too many mistakes. We made a mistake, and they got an opportunity and didn't miss it. That's why they are a really good team." 

The Nationals wouldn’t seriously threaten again on a night in which offense was deemed a priority.

Perhaps seeking an influx of offensive potential, Davey Martinez reconfigured his outfield alignment for this game, giving Joey Meneses his first start of the season in right field, Thomas his first start of the season in center field, Corey Dickerson a chance to DH and Ildemaro Vargas a chance to play left field.

The trade-off: A drop in defensive play, something Davey Martinez was willing to risk in exchange for a better shot at a bigger night at the plate. Unfortunately, neither proved true.

The Nationals hit the ball hard early against Gonsolin, with Jeimer Candelario, CJ Abrams and Ruiz each driving a ball to the warning track in center within the first four innings. By night's end, they hit 13 balls at 100 mph or harder off the bat. Eight of them resulted in outs.

"I felt like we flew out to the warning track five or six times," Thomas lamented. "If a couple of those catch some wind or fall out there, I feel like we're maybe in that game longer."

The Nats instead tried the small-ball approach in the third, getting singles from Vargas, Thomas (extending his hit streak to 15 games) and Meneses (an RBI knock to left). But they managed to score only one run through it all, with Dominic Smith and Dickerson each flying out with the bases loaded, unable to bring anyone else home.

Meneses may have driven in a run, but he also helped the Dodgers create a three-run rally in the third when he initially broke back on Freeman’s sinking liner to right and couldn’t recover in time to make what would normally be a fairly routine catch.

"When you're playing a team like this – I say it all the time – you can't give them extra outs," Davey Martinez said. "They're going to take advantage of it."

Everything else the Dodgers hit that inning was clean, from Mookie Betts’ single to Max Muncy’s ground-rule double to Jason Heyward’s RBI single. All told, they scored three runs that inning off Jake Irvin, plus another in the second via Heyward’s solo homer off Irvin, who appeared in serious trouble.

To his credit, the rookie right-hander never let things get completely out of control. He finally issued his first walk with two outs in the fifth. He threw 61 of his 94 pitches for strikes. And he kept Los Angeles from scoring again after the third, keeping the game within striking distance for his teammates.

"Free passes, it's non-competitive," said Irvin, who had four walks in each of his last two starts. "When you give up hits like that, props to the Dodgers. It's a fantastic lineup, as you guys know. I still felt like I competed. Made pitches. Tried to keep us in the game as long as possible."

Irvin did keep them in the game. And his teammates did make things interesting and perhaps conjure up some good memories from October 2019. But this team isn’t that team, and tonight’s result wasn’t that result.

Game 56 lineups: Nats at Dodgers
Nats trying different outfield alignment tonight

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