TORONTO - As wild and wacky and frustrating and exhilarating as today’s ballgame at Rogers Centre was, the sight of Ryan Madson on the mound in the bottom of the eighth had to be as comforting a thought as the Nationals were going to get.
Madson was simply being asked to keep a back-and-forth game tied and give his teammates a chance to mount a rally in the top of the ninth. And few have been better at that, especially at keeping the ball in the park.
These kinds of games, though, always seem to feature an even wackier conclusion, and there’s no other way to explain what happened next, when Madson surrendered not only his first home run in more than a year but moments later his second one as well.
“I envisioned the inning going a lot different than that,” the 37-year-old reliever said in the understatement of the afternoon.
As a result of that rarest of rare occurrences, the Nationals were dealt an agonizing, 8-6 loss to the Blue Jays to complete an agonizing weekend sweep to complete a frustrating, 1-4 road trip through the American League East. On a day when they finally racked up 13 hits and got clutch offensive performances from several members of their lineup, one of their most trusted relievers couldn’t do what he always does.
“It happens,” manager Davey Martinez said, even though it hasn’t happened in a long time.
The nightmare began with one out in the bottom of the eighth, when Teoscar Hernández sent a 2-2 fastball from Madson that tailed back over the plate deep to left field, breaking the deadlock and giving Toronto the lead.
“Stuff was good, but no command of it,” the reliever said. “I think that was the major issue there with the fastball. Probably the wrong pitch and the wrong location. So I missed twice on that one.”
Madson barely had time to lament the first home before he surrendered another. Two pitches later, an 0-1 curveball, Yangervis Solarte lined a ball down the right field line and over the fence to complete the stunning, 1-2 punch.
“The second one, I don’t know, that kind of surprised me,” Madson said. “It’s been a long time since someone hit a curveball for a home run.”
Actually, it had never happened to Madson in his career. According to Fangraphs’ pitch data, that was the first home run ever hit off a Madson curveball, a pitch he didn’t throw at all for a good stretch of his career but one he has come to rely on the last three seasons since returning from Tommy John surgery.
These were the first home runs of any type surrendered by Madson since he joined the Nationals last summer, the first home runs he had surrendered at all since June 4, 2017, when none other than Ryan Zimmerman took the former Athletics right-hander deep in Oakland.
“Ah, 3-1 changeup,” Madson said when informed, and indeed he has a good memory.
All that capped off a long and often maddening ballgame that seemed destined for this kind of finish when both starters were knocked out early.
Tanner Roark never really looked comfortable during his abbreviated start. He walked two batters (one with the bases loaded), he hit another batter, he required three mound visits from either pitching coach Derek Lilliquist or catcher Spencer Kieboom and he hurled 97 pitches in only four innings.
It was a disappointing outing for Roark, all the more so considering it came on a day when the Nationals needed a longer start in advance of the 12 innings (minimum) they’ll be playing Monday in a pseudo-doubleheader against the Yankees.
“I stunk today,” the right-hander said. “Didn’t really have much working for me.”
Roark departed with the Nats trailing, but they at least made sure to get him off the hook for a loss with their first string of sustained rallies in a while, much of it coming via contact and speed on the bases.
They scored twice in the second via two singles, a walk, two stolen bases, a throwing error and a balk induced by Wilmer Difo dancing off third base that rattled Blue Jays starter Sam Gaviglio. They added a run in the third in more conventional fashion: an Anthony Rendon double and a Daniel Murphy RBI single.
By the time they came up to bat in the top of the sixth, the Nationals trailed again, 5-3, the extra run coming when Randal Grichuk launched his second homer of the afternoon, this one off reliever Shawn Kelley. But then came a much-needed rally from the bottom of the lineup to tie the game up again.
Michael A. Taylor jumpstarted things with his third hit and fourth stolen base of the game. Brian Goodwin’s double off the wall in right-center plated one run. Adam Eaton’s perfectly placed, pinch-hit double down the third base line plated the tying run and made this a whole new ballgame again ... until it wasn’t.
Toronto answered with the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh off Justin Miller, who after a perfect start to the season has now been scored upon in his last two outings.
But the Nationals had their own answer for that, thanks to the bottom of the lineup once again. Juan Soto led off the top of the eighth with an opposite-field single, then took second on Tyler Clippard’s wild pitch. After Taylor failed on two attempts to get a bunt down and then struck out - “It’s the one thing that will haunt me today,” the otherwise-brilliant center fielder said. “It was the biggest at-bat of my day, and I didn’t get the job done.” Goodwin delivered another game-tying hit, this time singling to left to bring home Soto.
But when they had a chance to finish the rally and take the lead, their biggest star couldn’t deliver. Bryce Harper stepped to the plate with the bases loaded, two out and a golden opportunity to change the growing narrative about his prolonged slump. Harper, though, fell behind in the count against closer Ryan Tepera 0-2 and then lofted a lazy fly ball to shallow center field for the third out, leaving the game knotted at 6-6.
“I’ll take our chances every time we score six runs, I really will,” Martinez said. “I’m proud of them. They didn’t give up. They fought the whole game.”
Six runs would have been enough for the Nationals to win 20 of their last 22 games. They weren’t enough to win this one after one of their most-trusted relievers surrendered not one but two shocking home runs.
“It’s part of the season you’re going to go through,” Madson said. “I don’t even think it’s that bad. Our personalities are good, our attitudes are good. We just want to play a game tomorrow.”