Soto gets best of Gore, Abrams as Nats drop opener (updated)

The baseball gods brought Juan Soto, MacKenzie Gore and CJ Abrams together tonight as only they can, three of the primary figures in one of the biggest trades in history converging at Nationals Park for a series opener that was anticipated more than most because of their participation.

The game – a 7-4 loss by the Nationals to the Padres – ultimately was decided during a couple of critical sequences in the sixth and seventh innings. But those three still were front and center on this night, in ways both uplifting and discouraging.

Abrams and Soto each homered, the former to help the Nats storm back to tie the game in the fifth, the latter to help the Padres extend the lead they retook in the seventh.

Soto, who doffed his helmet to an appreciative crowd of 21,438 when he stepped to the plate in the top of the first, finished 3-for-4 with the aforementioned homer, two singles and a walk in his second D.C. appearance since last August’s trade.

Abrams reached base only once in four tries, but that one was a big one: a two-run homer off Yu Darvish to spark the Nationals’ mid-game comeback.

Gore was the most disappointing of the group, unable to complete five innings while allowing three runs to score and 11 batters to reach base.

Davey Martinez had been worried about Gore’s emotions heading into this game, worried the young lefty might get a little too amped up facing his former team for the first time. And when Gore proceeded to strike out Fernando Tatis Jr. on a 98.8 mph fastball (the hardest-thrown pitch of his career) to open his night, Martinez actually felt worse.

"I got a little nervous," the Nationals manager said. "He's topping out at 99. He came back out and settled down a little bit, but he's throwing a lot of pitches to get outs. We've got to get him more in the zone. We've got to get him down again. The stuff is electric, as we all know. But 100-something pitches in 4 2/3 innings, that's a lot."

Gore continued to throw hard all night, but his command was decidedly off, leading to four walks. And when he did find the plate, he found too much of it, leading to a pair of home runs. Xander Bogaerts got him in the top of the first, driving a 98 mph fastball to right for a 2-0 lead. Brandon Dixon got him in the top of the fourth, hammering a first-pitch, 94 mph fastball to right-center to make it 3-0.

"I'm just getting big," Gore said. "Instead of just executing, I'm trying to throw a really good pitch. The execution part has just not been there. The stuff is fine, the velo's been good. I've just got to execute." 

Even when he was avoiding damage on the scoreboard, Gore was throwing a ton of pitches. He needed 32 of them to complete the first inning, and another 20 to complete the second. By the time he completed the fourth, his total was up to 78 and Andrés Machado was warming in the bullpen. Martinez let his starter return to the mound to begin the fifth, but four batters (two of whom reached) later, that was the end of that.

Gore departed, having thrown 103 pitches in only 4 2/3 innings, an erratic and disappointing outcome in a start that probably meant more to him than most, even if he didn't want to openly admit that.

"Once we got here today, I was just figuring out how I was going to attack hitters," he said. "This wasn't about me. We're coming in here trying to win a game. But it was fun. When you know guys, it's fun to compete against them."

The Nationals did get their starter off the hook, thanks to a three-run rally in the bottom of the fifth that briefly energized the crowd, thanks in no small part to the latest power display from one of the other players acquired in last summer’s blockbuster trade.

Shut down for more than four innings by Darvish and his seven-deep repertoire of pitches, the Nats stormed back on Abrams’ two-run homer off a slider from the Padres veteran. It was his fifth of the season, all of them coming in the fifth inning or later, this one his first against his former team.

"It's exciting," Abrams said. "It's fun just playing against your former teammates and friends. It didn't go our way, bu we'll get them tomorrow."

The crowd roared with approval, then roared even louder moments later when Lane Thomas followed Abrams’ blast to right with his own to left, this one sending Soto crashing into the wall before watching the ball sail into the bullpen to tie the game at 3.

That lead was short-lived. The Padres took it right back in the top of the sixth off Erasmo Ramírez, though the outcome might well have been different if not for an ill-conceived decision by Dominic Smith. With one out and runners on the corners, Ramírez got Tatis to hit a shallow fly ball to right. Thomas charged in, made the catch and fired toward the plate, believing he could nail a tagging Rougned Odor. The throw looked like it would arrive in time and on target, but Smith inexplicably cut it off, allowing Odor to score unopposed as the crowd gasped and Thomas glared at his first baseman.

"I didn't talk to him about it yet. What I assume is he saw the (trailing runner) take off from first base and thought he could cut it and get that guy out," Martinez said. "I thought he would've been out at home. The throw was good, it had good carry, I thought it was on-line. I just need to talk to Dom and see what his thoughts were, but I think the runner going right away from first kind of messed him up a little bit."

Even after that mistake, the Nationals trailed only by one run. But then Ramírez, sent back to the mound to pitch the seventh, melted down. He served up a towering, 441-foot homer to Soto, then a two-run shot to Jake Cronenworth that was initially ruled a double off the top of the wall but was reversed to a home run upon review.

Just like that, the Nats trailed by four runs, with Gore and Abrams on the wrong end, and Soto on the right end, in their convergence on South Capitol Street.

"You realize how hard the hitters have been fighting the whole game to try to figure out (Darvish)," Ramírez said. "And I just showed up there and did not execute pitches, not getting the right mix, it's tough. ... It wasn't my day today."

Game 49 lineups: Nats vs. Padres
Soto prepared for welcome back from Nats fans

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