DENVER – It’s hard to call a six-run offensive performance unsatisfactory, especially for a lineup that hasn’t exactly been great at scoring runs so far this season. The usual standards of offensive success, though, don’t always apply 5,280 feet above sea level.
The Nationals, sorry to say, needed more than that this afternoon during a 7-6 loss to the Rockies at Coors Field. Maybe that’s more an indictment of their bullpen, which saw four runs cross the plate in the bottom of the sixth under its watch. But with several top relief arms unavailable after contributing to wins both Friday and Saturday nights, it was always going to be a challenge for the rest of that unit to pitch flawless baseball.
As such, the Nats failed to win this four-game series, settling instead for a long weekend split. Each loss came by only one run: a 1-0 heartbreaker Thursday afternoon, then today’s high-scoring, back-and-forth affair.
They leave town at 3-7, with a three-game series in Anaheim against the star-studded Angels next before they return to the East Coast.
"We talked about this all week here: You've just got to score as many runs as possible," manager Davey Martinez said. "Anything can happen. Look, we battled. It was just a tough day."
The Nationals did score a total of 23 runs over the last three days, no small feat for a lineup that was mostly shut down during its 1-5 season-opening homestand. They continued the trend this afternoon with another strong showing from a resurgent Victor Robles, the surprising addition of Stone Garrett and the patient Alex Call.
But the difference in the series finale vs. the previous three games was a so-so outing by a starter.
Nationals starters came into the day having excelled in the series, no matter the venue. Josiah Gray, MacKenzie Gore and Trevor Williams combined to allow only five runs over 17 1/3 innings, good for a 2.60 ERA. Now they would entrust Chad Kuhl to keep that run going.
The assignment proved too difficult for Kuhl, who, in his return to Coors Field, was charged with five runs over five-plus innings. The right-hander, who spent last season with the Rockies, had only one clean inning, but his best work may have come during a wild bottom of the first that included an infield single, a walk, a wild pitch to the backstop and a clock violation that precipitated an intentional walk but ultimately zero runs after he struck out Elehuris Montero on three straight sliders with the bases loaded.
"Just kind of a restart," Kuhl said of his mindset once the bases were loaded. "As long as I execute, I think we're going to be in a good spot. And I ended up doing it."
Kuhl’s biggest mistakes came on hanging breaking balls later: a 2-0 slider to Elias Díaz and an 0-1 curveball to Jurickson Profar. Both resulted in solo homers.
Kuhl ended the fifth with his pitch count at 81, the game tied 3-3 at the time. When the Nationals proceeded to score three runs in the top of the sixth, Martinez let his starter retake the mound, hoping to squeeze a few more outs from him before turning to a bullpen that was without Kyle Finnegan, Carl Edwards Jr. or Hunter Harvey after all three pitched the previous two nights.
Would the manager have still let Kuhl start the sixth if he had more available relievers?
"Probably not," Martinez admitted. "But we felt like in that spot, we could get him through it."
Kuhl, though, only made it two batters into the sixth before Martinez summoned for Erasmo Ramírez. Thus began a painful sequence of events that saw Ramírez give up an RBI groundout, an RBI double on a fly ball to straightaway center that Robles (shaded way into right-center at the time) couldn’t chase down, an infield single and an RBI single that tied the game and eventually led Martinez to call upon Hobie Harris with the bases loaded.
"As a reliever, you just have to execute better," Ramírez said. "Give a chance to your defense to make plays. Today, it just didn't happen. I did my best to keep the ball inside the ballpark. I did it, but they found just the right spot."
As for Díaz's RBI double to straightaway center, both Ramírez and Martinez applauded Robles for shading as far into right-center as he did, recognizing the Colorado catcher had been trying to hit most everything to that side of the field and was fouling off several pitches to the first base side in that at-bat. Ramírez blamed himself for not throwing his final cutter to Díaz where he wanted it, allowing the batter to hit the ball to the vacant area of the outfield.
"He moved over there; I thought it was pretty smart of him," Martinez said of Robles. "It was just a hanging breaking ball. If he throws him another fastball, he was going to hit the ball over there. I like the fact that Vic is thinking, which is awesome. It took a few years for him to understand how to play out there. Just a tough break."
Harris, making his third career big league appearance, couldn’t escape the jam. He walked Ryan McMahon on five pitches, and just like that the Rockies had a 7-6 lead.
On other days in other parks, the Nationals would’ve already supplied enough offense to win. Alas, the six runs they plated through the sixth weren’t enough.
They amassed that total despite zero extra-base hits. They got three singles in the second, one of them a perfectly executed hit-and-run by Robles through the vacant right side of the infield, plus a run-scoring balk called on Ryan Feltner to take a 2-0 lead. They used a walk, a single and an RBI groundout by Dominic Smith to plate another run in the fifth. Then they rode a couple of singles, a couple of bases-loaded walks and a wild pitch issued by old friend Brad Hand to score three more runs in the top of the sixth.
But that was all they could muster at the plate. It might’ve been enough somewhere else. It wasn’t enough here today.
"All we can do and all we can focus on is going out there and giving 100 percent, give it all we have," Robles said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Just focus on trying to do the best we can on the field. Unfortunately, we didn't get another victory in the series. But I think if we go out there with the right focus, things will play themselves out."