Pitching wears down again during loss to Cards (updated)

A stretch of 17 games in 17 days in blistering early July heat has long loomed on the Nationals’ schedule. This was going to be a test not only of this growing team’s ability to compete with opponents in the pennant race, but also of this team’s physical and mental fortitude.

All of that is being put to the test right now, and though the Nats have managed to pull off some inspired wins along the way, the grind clearly is getting to them. Especially their pitching staff.

Today’s 8-3 loss to the Cardinals saw DJ Herz labor for 4 1/3 innings, putting added strain on a bullpen that already was running on fumes. What had been a decided strength through most of the season’s first half has devolved into a liability this week, with five top relievers pressed into overtime duties and the other three forced to pitch out of necessity.

Among the biggest takeaways from the last two days, in particular: The Nationals sorely lack a long man in the pen. And they may not be able to proceed much longer without one unless their starters can consistently churn out six innings a piece.

"Most of our bullpen has been going one-plus innings right now," manager Davey Martinez said. "We're trying to get to that All-Star break, to give them a break. We need some length tomorrow from our starter, that's what we need."

Herz took the mound for the seventh time as a big leaguer today, perhaps just as uncertain as everyone else how this one would go. He’s been the epitome of inconsistency to date, having twice finished with double-digit strikeouts and zero walks over more than five innings but having failed to complete five frames in his five other starts.

This one, unfortunately, fell into the latter category, though it wasn’t entirely the pitcher’s fault.

Herz got through a quick top of the first on nine pitches, suggesting a positive tone for the day. It didn’t last. He needed 29 pitches to complete the top of the second, though the inning would’ve been over 10 pitches earlier if not for a fielding gaffe behind him.

With a runner on first and two out, Nolan Gorman lofted a high fly ball into shallow left field. CJ Abrams and Trey Lipscomb each went back for the ball as James Wood jogged in from his position. As the three converged, Abrams and Lipscomb deferred to Wood, who appeared to have the easiest play on the ball. But then Wood pulled up short as well and the ball fell harmlessly to the ground for what turned into an RBI double.

Dylan Carlson followed with a bloop RBI single to right of his own, putting Herz in a 2-0 hole he didn’t exactly deserve.

"(Wood) was looking at the infielders," Martinez said. "He needs to come run. Outfielders take precedence over infielders. He needs to come just catch the ball."

The Cardinals added another run in the fourth, after which Herz’s pitch count had climbed to 84. Needing to squeeze as much out of his starter as possible, Martinez sent the rookie back out there for the fifth. But after a one-out walk and a catcher’s interference call on Riley Adams, the manager made the long walk to the mound to make his first pitching change of the day, Herz done after a whopping 102 pitches in only 4 1/3 innings.

"There were a lot of uncontrollables," Herz said. "But the one thing I could control was the two-out walk, and obviously the other walks. The walks came back to hurt me today, and that's something I can control."

Dylan Floro was first out of the bullpen, and the veteran immediately surrendered an RBI single to Willson Contreras, then allowed an uncontested double-steal in which he never looked the runners back. Sure enough, Nolan Arenado’s subsequent single to left brought home two more, leaving Herz charged with five runs (four earned) and leaving the Nats in a 6-2 hole.

"I'm a big ground ball pitcher," Floro said. "So for me, keeping the guys at first base is part of my job, and what helped me have success getting double plays. And that didn't happen today."

Derek Law tried to keep the game close but was tagged by Contreras for a two-run homer in the top of the seventh. And there were still two more innings to cover for a bullpen running on fumes at this point.

"It's been a tough stretch for everybody," Floro said. "Especially these last few games, losing in the late innings, stuff like that. Our job is to come in and shut the door down. We haven't been getting it done. But we have to come back tomorrow and keep it going. We could sit here and think about what we did wrong, but we've got another game tomorrow."

The lineup, meanwhile, showed some early life against Cardinals starter Kyle Gibson, getting a pair of doubles in the bottom of the second from Jesse Winker and Juan Yepez, plus an RBI single from Adams. But the bats were silenced most of the remainder of the day, with Winker’s RBI double in the sixth producing their only other run off Gibson.

"I honestly like the way we're swinging the bat," Martinez said. "We hit some balls hard. We've just got to capitalize more."

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