Slumping Nats lineup can't break out in 4-2 loss to Phillies (updated)

PHILADELPHIA – The Nationals, fresh off back-to-back shutout losses at the hands of the American League’s worst team, marched into Citizens Bank Park hoping they might somehow break out of their funk against the National League’s best team, which just so happened to be sending its ace to the mound.

That proved to be just as tough a task as it looked like on paper. Though they did manage to keep the Phillies lineup in relative check, especially after a ragged start to the night, their lineup was no match for Zack Wheeler, who cruised into the eighth inning with only minimal resistance.

The Nats’ 4-2 loss in the opener of a weekend series wasn’t all that different from other recent losses. They got decent pitching. They didn’t get enough hitting. Though they actually inflicted more damage on Wheeler than they did Erick Fedde or Garrett Crochet earlier this week in Chicago.

It still resulted in a third straight loss, and in those three losses the Nationals have scored a total of two runs on a total of 11 hits. Not exactly a formula for success.

"I know these guys are battling their butts off at the plate. That's just kind of the way the game plays sometimes," said Jake Irvin, who has been the victim of poor run support. "We just need to keep going out there, giving us a chance to win. And the offense, we have a lot of faith that those guys are going to come up and do big things every game. Even when we're not winning games that we're pitching well, we have faith that those guys are going to step it up. And they will."

Irvin’s challenge tonight was significant. Given the Nationals’ offensive struggles, he couldn’t afford to give up much. And to try not to give up much to a fearsome Phillies lineup? Well, good luck with that.

This was immediately a problem for Irvin, who gave up runs in the first, second and third innings. Curiously enough, though, those runs were produced not by the big boys wearing Liberty Bell logos on their helmets but by the bottom half of the opposing lineup.

Irvin handled Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper, who went a combined 0-for-6 with two strikeouts against him. Alec Bohm and Brandon Marsh, on the other hand, each delivered an RBI double.

All the while, Irvin’s real struggle seemed to involve his jersey, which was soaked with sweat before the end of the first inning on a muggy-if-cool, 68-degree night. And his inability to locate his pitches, especially his fastball, suggested he wasn’t entirely confident with his grip. He hit two batters in the first three innings, eliciting boos from the Philly crowd, though Irvin insisted that wasn't the reason for his lack of command.

"I made a lot of really uncompetitive pitches early and got myself into predictable counts," he said. "And that's a good team over there, man. They're going to hit mistakes, and I made quite a few mistakes early."

Irvin eventually changed into a dry jersey, and he subsequently turned into a different pitcher. He retired the last seven batters he faced, relying on a sharp curveball that fooled both Schwarber and Harper. And despite sitting on 72 pitches after only three innings, he still managed to complete the fifth at a reasonable count of 93 before Davey Martinez turned to his bullpen.

"I kind of realized the attack plan from the other side and made the adjustment," Irvin said. "But it was a little too late."

The bullpen picked up right where Irvin left off. Jacob Barnes and Jordan Weems combined to pitch three perfect innings in relief, which combined with Irvin made for 16 consecutive batters retired to end the game.

"Our pitching as a whole has done really well," Martinez said. "We score some runs for these guys, they're going to start winning some games."

The four runs charged to Irvin, though, forced the Nationals to produce at the plate like they haven’t done much in the last week. And they had to do this against Wheeler, one of the best starters in the game and one of the few remaining true workhorses in baseball.

The Nats managed to plate two runs against Wheeler, and they did so with doubles.

The first two-bagger came off the bat of someone who sorely needed one: Keibert Ruiz. The slumping catcher, who entered the day with the lowest OPS of any major leaguer with at least 90 plate appearances, put forth one of his best swings in a while when he drove a down-and-away fastball from Wheeler to the left-center gap, scoring Jesse Winker from first base for the Nationals’ first run.

"I've been looking for those hits," Ruiz said. "And hopefully I can get some more of that. I've been feeling better. Like I've been saying, it's a tough moment, but I'm not going to put my head down. I'm going to keep working hard to get the results I want."

Three innings later, CJ Abrams (who scorched a 109.7-mph line drive right at Harper in the top of the first) got some more elevation on his line drive and ripped a two-out double to right. Eddie Rosario followed with a bloop double of his own, with Abrams running on the 3-2 pitch and easily scoring the Nats’ second run. Rosario then proceeded to run into the third out of the inning, thinking a pitch got by Realmuto at the plate when in fact it had not.

"True veteran guy, he came right to me and said he screwed up," Martinez said. "He apologized. Hey, it happens. I know you're trying to be aggressive, play the game the right way. Just remember in that situation, you're in scoring position, we're down two. There's really no way you can go, unless you see the ball rolling back there. Just stay right there."

And that’s all they managed off Wheeler, who held everyone else in check during his 7 1/3 innings, especially Joey Gallo. The big slugger, who missed the last three weeks with a sprained shoulder, was activated off the 10-day injured list today and plugged right back into the cleanup spot in the lineup. He had homered four times in 10 rehab games in the minors, but that didn’t translate into success against one of the majors’ best pitchers: Wheeler struck him out in all three of their encounters.

Gallo did finally connect for a double in the ninth off Jeff Hoffman. That at least allowed the Nats to bring the tying run to the plate before the night ended with a Jesse Winker fly out to the warning track in right.

"We had a chance there at the end," Martinez said. "We had the tying run at the plate, and Winker had a good swing. Just didn't get it all. It could've been a lot worse. But we settled down and made it close. We've got to start hitting."

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