Sixth-inning meltdown sends Nats to frustrating loss in Oakland (updated)

OAKLAND, Calif. – On a day when several struggling hitters finally came through in some big spots, and on a day when their No. 5 starter turned in his third consecutive strong outing, and on a day when they opened up what felt like a comfortable lead in the rubber game of a weekend series, the Nationals somehow still found themselves lamenting a loss at the end of the day.

How did they fall to the Athletics, 7-6, and drop this series? With a bottom-of-the-sixth bullpen meltdown the likes of which they won’t soon want to remember.

When the critical inning began, the Nats held a 6-1 lead, with Trevor Williams cruising toward what should have been his third straight win to begin the season. When the inning ended, that lead evaporated, with Williams pulled three batters in and relievers Derek Law and Jordan Weems allowing six runs to score, all with two outs.

Manager Davey Martinez could have left Williams in longer but knew the veteran’s history of late-inning troubles. But after using his top four relievers (Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, Robert Garcia and Weems) each of the previous two days, Martinez’s options weren’t as appealing as they might otherwise have been.

Put that all together and you get a particularly frustrating loss for a team that was seeking its second straight series win to cap off a successful week in the Bay Area.

"It's funny how this game is," Martinez said. "Because we were worried about offense; today we go out there and score six runs. And then we can't finish the game. We've got to forget about this one and go back and do it again tomorrow."

The challenge tomorrow, though, is going to be steep. The Nationals head to Los Angeles with a 3-3 record on this West Coast trip, tasked with facing the mighty Dodgers and giving the ball to left-hander Mitchell Parker for his major league debut Monday night.

"I think he'll have a lot of emotions," Martinez said of the 2020 fifth-round pick. "If we get him through that first inning, I think he'll be just fine. It's always that first inning when they get amped up. But he's got a very low heartbeat, and I like that about him."

Reliever Amos Willingham, who was called up Friday but never pitched, was optioned back to Triple-A Rochester to make room for Parker. The Nats are likely to make more roster moves before Monday, with Keibert Ruiz still sick and Martinez acknowledging they need to bring another catcher in after Riley Adams caught three straight days.

Three times through the rotation, the Nationals’ most effective starter hasn’t been MacKenzie Gore (even with his 11-strikeout gem Saturday). It hasn’t been Jake Irvin (even with his one-hit outing Friday). It’s been Williams, who quietly has strung together three straight strong starts to begin this season in a far more uplifting fashion than he ended last season.

The veteran right-hander, who nearly lost the No. 5 starter’s job to Zach Davies this spring, has yet to allow more than three runs in an outing. He has completed at least five innings each time. And he would’ve been credited with the win in all three games had his bullpen not botched this one.

Williams was successful today not as much with weak contact but with strikeouts and punchouts. He finished with seven K’s, a total he reached only once last year. They came on a variety of pitches, from 89-mph sinkers that painted the outside corner to sliders, sweepers and changeups that had the A’s flailing.

"At the end of last year, there were some glaring issues that we needed to address," said Williams, who finished with a 5.55 ERA in 30 starts. "I took it into the offseason that we were going to attack those things. And thankfully it carried over into the offseason and spring training and into the season."

But Williams’ penchant for fading later in starts likely prompted Martinez to afford him very little rope this afternoon. So when two of Oakland’s first three batters reached in the bottom of the sixth, Martinez made the walk to the mound and took the ball from his starter, who had thrown only 78 pitches.

"Look, I've known Trevor for a while," the manager said. "Right about that 80-pitch mark, I think that's good for him. My decision was to take him out. He did great. We were up five runs. We just couldn't close it out."

That move almost immediately backfired. Law struck out Seth Brown for the second out of the inning but then proceeded to allow the next four batters to reach via two singles and two walks (with a run-scoring wild pitch and a clock violation thrown in there for good measure).

In came Weems, pitching for the third straight day, and he proceeded to walk in a run before surrendering a two-run single on a sinking liner to left that Jesse Winker couldn’t quite get to for what would’ve been a spectacular catch.

Just like that, six runs had crossed the plate for the A’s, all with two outs. And a 6-1 lead for the Nationals somehow turned into a 7-6 deficit.

"Honestly, it wasn't even a big spot, really" Law said of entering with a five-run lead. "Trevor pitched his ass off. I think that's the most frustrating thing: Coming in for a 6-1 game, you should be able to keep it 6-1 and not make it a tough spot for anybody. Instead, I kind of made it harder on everybody else. It's tough to live with when your team is playing well."

The Nats had been enjoying what felt like a breakthrough game at the plate, with several previously struggling hitters coming through in key spots when they needed it most. Joey Meneses, who entered with only two RBIs on the season, doubled that total with a third-inning groundout and a sixth-inning single to center. Jacob Young, moved up to the leadoff spot despite a .208 batting average, reached base three times and drove in a run with a fourth-inning double.

And Lane Thomas, bumped down to the No. 5 spot in the lineup after a dismal stretch of games, broke out with two RBI singles and a towering, 429-foot homer to deep left-center off veteran left-hander Alex Wood.

"I thought I had a chance to drive in some runs," he said of his move down the batting order. "I feel like those guys did a good job of getting on today, and I got some hits in situations that scored some runs. That's how I took it."

Even with all that, the Nationals still had to feel like they squandered opportunities to open up an even bigger lead. Continuing a weekend-long theme, they went 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position through the first four innings.

By day’s end, they certainly wished they had come through a couple more times earlier when they had the chance.

"It's tough, but it's still early," Thomas said. "I think once those guys get settled in, we'll be in a good place."

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