Nats score early, not late in 7-5 loss to Rockies (updated)

DENVER - Davey Martinez has participated in enough games at Coors Field - as a player, as a coach and as a manager - to know what kind of mindset anyone in uniform must bring to this park.

“You gotta try to score as many runs as possible,” he said this afternoon. “No game’s ever over.”

So even when the Nationals scored two runs in the top of the first tonight, Martinez certainly knew that wouldn’t be enough. And even when they added three more in the top of the fourth via Brian Dozier’s blast deep into the left field bleachers, Martinez had to know that still wouldn’t be enough.

Sure enough, the time-honored axiom held true. Five runs were not enough for the Nationals to win their series opener on a 46-degree night in the thin Colorado air. The Rockies had an answer for each of them, scoring five times in five innings against Jeremy Hellickson, then adding two more off the Nats’ beleaguered bullpen en route to a 7-5 victory to kick off this series on a sour note.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever played here and had a low-scoring game,” Dozier said. “It’s always back and forth. You’re never out of a game, by any means. It doesn’t matter who’s on the mound. You get the ball in the air, and it travels here. Typical Colorado game, but came up short.”

Nolan Arenado’s homer off Wander Suero in the seventh gave the Rockies their first lead of the night. Raimel Tapia’s pinch-hit homer off Kyle Barraclough in the eighth gave them a key insurance run.

And given the Nationals lineup’s complete inability to make a dent into the Colorado bullpen, this one went in the loss column for the visitors, who fell back under the .500 mark at 10-11.

Despite scoring five runs off Rockies starter Tyler Anderson, the Nats’ bats went silent once the bullpen gate swung open. Colorado relievers retired 13 straight batters before Juan Soto singled in the eighth. And that hit was immediately erased when Howie Kendrick grounded into a double play.

The Nationals had one more shot in the ninth when Ryan Zimmerman doubled off Wade Davis and Dozier drew a one-out walk to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. But Arenado made a nifty play on pinch-hitter Kurt Suzuki’s sharp grounder to third and pulled off a game-ending double play.

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“We kind of knew coming in that they’ve got a pretty decent bullpen,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “It was just a matter of us to put some good at-bats together. I think we did. We were just kind of one knock away from breaking the game open, just like they were.”

Hellickson had made 226 career big league appearances prior to tonight, and he had made those appearances in 29 of the 30 current ballparks. Just not Coors Field. Somehow the veteran right-hander had avoided the toughest pitcher’s park in the league for a decade.

Hellickson got a rude introduction when he finally took the mound at 5,280 feet about sea level tonight. Twice handed multi-run leads, he twice handed them right back.

After the Nationals jumped out to a 2-0 lead on Kendrick’s two-run single in the top of the first, Hellickson responded by allowed three hits and a walk in the bottom of the inning, the run-scoring hits coming via Arenado and Ryan McMahon.

Hellickson never did have a clean inning, but he managed to avoid damage in the second, third and fourth innings. He couldn’t do it in the fifth.

After the Nationals had retaken a 5-2 lead via Dozier’s towering home run way back into the left field bleachers, Hellickson watched said lead disappear in the span of four batters. Arenado doubled, Trevor Story singled him home and (after McMahon grounded out) former Nationals slugger Mark Reynolds lofted a deep fly ball to center field. It didn’t look terribly dangerous off the bat, but it just kept going in the thin air, and it cleared the wall for the game-tying homer that effectively ended Hellickson’s night.

“You can’t give up three runs there,” the right-hander said. “Doesn’t matter where you’re playing.”

This was now a battle of bullpens. And the notion of the majors’ least effective relief unit trying to keep a game at Coors Field under control couldn’t have been comforting to the Nationals.

Matt Grace, making his 13th appearance in only 21 team games, survived the bottom of the sixth despite a leadoff walk and two rockets to the outfield. But Suero was not so fortunate. The right-hander took the mound for the bottom of the seventh, and two pitches later Arenado took him deep to left-center.

One inning later, Tapia got Barraclough. And that was the ballgame.

“We came up short, made a couple bad pitches,” Martinez said. “Big mistakes, and it hurt us.”

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