The Nationals know they can’t win every game the rest of the way, that there are going to be nights they simply don’t put themselves in position to win and have to shrug off a loss. But they also know there have been and will continue to be games that are right there for the taking, games they absolutely must win if they have any hope of a meaningful, late-season charge.
Games like tonight’s contest against the Marlins, in which opportunities were abundant and victory was so close they could reach out and grab it.
Which they very nearly did. Until they gave it right back to Miami in even more demoralizing fashion.
Down a run in the bottom of the ninth, the Nationals got a game-tying blast from Adam Eaton to bring the crowd back to life but couldn’t push across the winning run, forcing extra innings. At which point the Marlins delivered the big hit the Nats sought all night and emerged with a 7-5, 10-inning victory.
“I mean, it’s very frustrating,” Koda Glover said. “It’s like you punch somebody, and then you get punched twice.”
On a night on which both the Braves and Phillies lost close games, the Nationals squandered a golden opportunity to gain ground in the National League East. They remain seven games back, their record stuck at 62-62 with only 38 remaining on the schedule.
Glover, who has both been landing and taking punches all week, was on the wrong end of an uppercut tonight. Isaac Galloway’s bases-loaded, two-out single off the young reliever was the difference. The unlikely hero emergied for Miami after the Nationals chose to intentionally walk JT Riddle (who was 3-for-4 with four RBIs in the game). Glover, given another opportunity to prove his mettle in a critical late situation with much of the rest of this bullpen injured or ineffective, allowed three singles in the inning to take the loss.
“Three broken bats, infield singles. I mean, that’s tough,” the right-hander said. “Honestly, I would rather give it up some other way than three broken bats in the infield.”
The crowd of 30,900 had already turned downtrodden in the top of the ninth after Justin Miller, who was brought back to pitch the ninth after recording two quick outs in the eighth, served up a leadoff homer to Riddle. The Marlins shortstop entered this series sporting an .097 batting average and one RBI since the All-Star break, but he’s now 5-for-8 with nine total bases the last two nights.
“He’s swinging the bat really well,” manager Davey Martinez said in explaining the decision to intentionally walk Riddle and face Galloway instead. “He’s dangerous right now.”
Despite Riddle’s gut-punch homer in the top of the ninth, Eaton brought everyone back to life when he homered to right-center on the ninth pitch he saw from Drew Steckenrider to open the bottom of the inning. And when Matt Wieters followed with a single up the middle, the Nats appeared to be in business. But they couldn’t advance Wieters beyond first base, so the game proceeded to extra innings.
“I think to fight to get back in the game is pretty hard, and then you do it two or three times in a game and then not be able to come out victorious I think is definitely disappointing a little bit,” Trea Turner said. “You know, that’s baseball. If you give those guys more chances and don’t capitalize on your chances, then you’re not going to put yourself in a spot to win. That’s kind of been a problem lately, but you’ve got to continue to grind.”
The mood was sour earlier on after the home team let the visitors take a 4-2 lead in the sixth as a direct result of a botched play at second base by Daniel Murphy. But then Murphy did his part to win everyone back with a stellar at-bat to set the tone for a game-tying rally in the seventh.
Battling through an 11-pitch showdown with right-hander Tayron Guerrero that included eight offerings that reached triple digits on the radar gun, Murphy lined a 100-mph fastball to center field for a leadoff single. And when third baseman Brian Anderson misplayed a chopper and Wieters successfully convinced his dugout to challenge a call that incorrectly asserted he wasn’t hit by a pitch on the foot, the Nats were in business.
Guerrero’s wild pitch brought home one run. Then Turner’s bloop single to center brought home another to tie the game and still give Juan Soto a chance to drive in the go-ahead run. But Soto, facing lefty Adam Conley fresh out of the Marlins bullpen, swung at the first pitch and grounded into a killer double play, leaving the game tied and in the hands of the respective relief corps.
“That was kind of unusual,” Martinez said of his rookie slugger. “He’s a pretty patient hitter. But you know what, he’s dangerous with a bat in his hands. He thought he had a chance to hit that ball, so he swung.”
The combination of a hot Nationals lineup and an opposing pitcher who has been awful on the road this season (1-6, 10.27 ERA) and has been owned by this team over the years (1-6, 5.02 ERA) should have made for a big night at the plate. Instead, the Nats often looked lost against Wei-Yin Chen, who turned in an unexpectedly effective performance.
Turner took the lefty deep to left-center for a two-run homer (the shortstop’s 15th of the year) in the bottom of the third, but that’s all the Nationals could muster off Chen. Four of their five hits came from the top (Turner, Soto) and bottom (Spencer Kieboom, Jefry Rodriguez) of their lineup. The Nats 3-through-7 hitters? They went a combined 1-for-12 against him tonight, hardly up to snuff.
Even so, the Nationals were in the thick of this game, actually leading for a good portion of the proceedings, thanks to Rodriguez’s strong start.
The rookie right-hander wasn’t initially supposed to be here tonight, but the club decided to move previously announced starter Tommy Milone to the bullpen to serve as a much-needed long reliever and promote Rodriguez from Triple-A Syracuse, where he struck out 11 batters in his last outing.
Rodriguez didn’t approach those kind of numbers tonight, but he pitched quite well, giving up a solo homer to Derek Dietrich in the second and an RBI double to Riddle in the fifth but not much else, keeping the game tied 2-2 heading to the sixth.
That’s when it fell apart, though. Martinez let Rodriguez bat for himself with one out and a runner on second base in the bottom of the fifth, believing another inning on the mound was more important. But then Rodriguez allowed back-to-back singles to open the top of the sixth, and Martinez immediately signaled for his bullpen.
Tim Collins did his job, striking out Derek Dietrich. And the just-recalled Jimmy Cordero did his job as well, inducing what should’ve been a simple 4-6-3 double play to end the inning. Of course, there’s no such thing as a simple double play when Murphy is involved. And sure enough, Murphy made a mess of it, failing to record even one out.
Then, after Cordero struck out Austin Dean for the second out of the inning, Murphy was unable to make a leaping catch of Riddle’s line drive. Two runs scored, and the Marlins took a 4-2 lead that probably should never have been but perhaps foretold what was still to come on another frustrating night at the ballpark.
“I make an error right there, put us behind schedule, and then I misplay a line drive,” Murphy said. “It was a direct hand in us losing this ballgame. Two plays I should’ve made. I didn’t. And it really hurt us a lot tonight, unfortunately.”