If this season is going to be about the development of young pitchers above all else, there are probably going to be more nights like this. Nights when the Nationals’ inept lineup can’t generate any semblance of consistent production, leading to a loss despite a quality effort by the club’s pitching staff.
Add tonight’s 4-0 loss to the Orioles to the growing list. Shut out for the second straight night by a Baltimore pitching staff that didn’t exactly come to town with a sparkling resume, the Nats never really felt like they were in it. They went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, dropped their second straight to their interleague rivals and fell to 5-13 overall.
"We're in a funk as a team," manager Davey Martinez said. "Just can't drive in that run. We out-hit them today. We just can't get that one big run across the board there."
The silver lining, then, was provided by MacKenzie Gore, who was far from outstanding in his fourth start of the season yet still showed the flashes of dominance that make the Nationals hope they’ve found their No. 1 starter.
Gore allowed three runs in six innings, all of them coming in the third and fourth. Before and after, he allowed only one batter to reach, striking out seven and departing with a 3.43 ERA and more strikeouts (25) than innings pitched (21) for the season.
Alas, Gore emerged with his first loss of the year because, like rotation mate Josiah Gray the previous night, the Nats provided zero runs of support for their starter.
"We talked about this before: Hitting comes and goes. There's no rhyme or reason," Martinez said. "Other than that, I know we've got to hit to score, but I like the way we're pitching, I like the way we're playing defense. We've got to stay right there. The hitting will come."
On the heels of his first disappointing start as a National, in which he threw 88 pitches in only 3 2/3 innings against the Angels, Gore faced another stiff challenge tonight in a potent Orioles lineup. He got off to a strong start, striking out Austin Hays and Adley Rutschman on curveballs en route to two clean innings on only 20 pitches, but then things got hairy in the third.
As was the case last week in Anaheim, Gore lost his command for more than a brief stretch. He issued three walks in the top of the third alone, the last of them with Rutschman at the plate and the bases loaded to force in the Orioles’ first run.
"The walks, when they come in bunches like that, walking in runs, that's just not very good," he said.
The fourth inning opened with another walk issued by Gore. Then came his costliest mistake of the game: a 2-2 curveball over the plate to Adam Frazier, who mashed it into the right field bullpen for a two-run homer and a 3-0 lead.
As Frazier rounded the bases, Gore stood by the mound and contemplated what was devolving into another substandard outing. To his credit, he turned it back into a quality start before departing.
Gore retired the final eight batters he faced following the homer, five via strikeout. That left him with seven strikeouts overall, his pitch count still a manageable 103 at the end of the sixth inning. The lefty, an admitted perfectionist, won’t be satisfied with the result. But if that qualifies as a disappointing start, he may just be headed toward a highly productive career when it’s all said and done.
"We finished strong, but I've got to clean it up a little bit," Gore said. "That's a couple starts in a row where I'm putting us in a bad spot with these walks. Walks happen, that's part of it. But these were non-competitive. I'm better than that."
Everyone might have felt better about the proceedings had the lineup simply mustered any support for their starter. That’s proving too much to ask this month, though. The Nationals scratched out a total of six hits in the game, drawing three walks as well but never stringing together enough to push a runner across the plate.
They went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position, those outs occurring in every manner possible: Fly out to the warning track, weak grounder to the right side, sharp double play grounder, strikeout.
"We're very inconsistent on just hitting the ball hard," Martinez said. "Right now, I'm just looking for quality at-bats, hitting the ball hard, hitting strikes, getting the ball in the strike zone, being aggressive on the fastballs. We're not doing that as a whole right now."