ATLANTA - If the streak was going to end, this probably felt like the night it would happen, with the backup to the backup starter on the mound. If a member of the Nationals rotation was going to take a loss for the first time in 28 games, Joe Ross was a good candidate.
And yet tonight’s 7-1 loss to the Braves can’t really be pinned on Ross, who did all the Nats could have asked of him under the circumstances. He gave them a chance to win.
“He looked good,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He kept us in the game for five-plus innings.”
No, this loss went to a Nationals lineup that - despite a bunch of hard-hit balls - only scored one run off Kevin Gausman, the Braves’ previously ineffective right-hander who returned in a big way tonight with seven-plus innings.
And so the Nationals left Atlanta with a disappointing, four-game split against the division leaders, who still hold a 6 1/2-game advantage as the final week of July arrives.
“If you’re thinking about catching someone in late July ... you’ve just got to try to win each game, I think,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who had to leave the game after aggravating his previously injured right foot in the second inning. “Four-game series are tough. It’s hard to win three of four against a good team. Splitting a four-game series, I don’t want to say is good enough, but ... it’s a tough place to play, a good team. I thought we did really well.”
Nonetheless, the Nats saw their pair of 27-game streaks come to an end. Ross became the first starter to take a loss since June 15. And the team wasn’t able to at least tie the game in the seventh inning or later for the first time since that same June 15 loss to the Diamondbacks.
They also saw Zimmerman suffer from a recurrence of the plantar fasciitis that previously sidelined him for two months. The veteran first baseman said he had been feeling “really good” in recent days, and he’s batting .302 (13-for-43) with five doubles and four RBIs since returning from the injured list. But he winced as he ran out an infield single in the top of the second and had to be replaced.
Zimmerman will have an MRI on Monday to determine the extent of the injury and what steps now need to be taken.
“I mean, it’s not good obviously, but it’s hard to tell now,” he said. “I’ll be able to answer that question precisely for you tomorrow.”
It was an ominous opening to a game that felt like an uphill climb all along.
The Nationals initially hoped Max Scherzer would return from his back injury to start this finale of a big division series. When the ace wasn’t ready, they intended to turn to Austin Voth, who impressed in his season debut against this same Braves lineup last month in D.C.
But then Voth came down with right biceps tendinitis, and with Erick Fedde already needed to start Monday on regular rest, the Nats were left with little choice but to summon Ross from Fresno and hope his modest success as a Triple-A starter would translate more than his disastrous results as a major league reliever (11.05 ERA in 17 games).
One inning in, it didn’t look promising. The Braves got to Ross for two runs (both scoring on Nick Markakis’ single to right) while also driving up his pitch count to 35.
“He was a little amped up,” Martinez said.
Ross, though, sharpened up as his night progressed. He struck out six, thanks in part to a solid slider. And when he walked off the mound at the end of the fifth, he had allowed only those two runs on a respectable 88 pitches.
“The first couple batters of the game, I went 3-2 or three-ball counts,” Ross said. “So avoiding those areas makes it easier on myself. ... I felt good the whole game. The first inning just kind of got out of hand a little bit.”
Given the circumstances, the Nationals had to be thrilled with those five innings of two-run ball. And with the pitcher’s spot due to lead off the top of the sixth, they figured to make the move right there. But Martinez let Ross (who singled in his first at-bat) hit for himself, then re-take the mound for the sixth. It was both a reflection of the state of his bullpen and his starter’s pitch count.
“Our bullpen, we’re still down,” the manager said. “And he’s been up to 100-plus pitches. And he looked good. The inning before that, that was the best inning I thought he had.”
But two pitches into the sixth, Ross was watching Josh Donaldson circle the bases following a 432-foot homer. And two batters after that, he was handing the ball over to Martinez, who finally went to his bullpen down three runs.
Then again, it didn’t matter much who was pitching for the Nationals, given what the guy pitching for the Braves was doing.
Gausman had been torched by the Nats for eight runs in one inning the last time he faced them, and he had since been banished to the minors to figure things out. He returned tonight with modest expectations, then exceeded them by leaps and bounds.
The Nationals, to be sure, hit the ball hard all night. Eight times they connected on a Gausman pitch for an exit velocity of at least 100 mph, but only three of those turned into hits (all singles). They hit four balls to the warning track in center field, each of them ultimately caught by Ender Inciarte.
But give Gausman credit, too, because he kept plenty of hitters off balance despite a two-pitch repertoire (fastball, splitter). He struck out eight through seven innings, and his pitch count to that point was a scant 77.
“A lot of people hit the ball really well, but he continued to go after us with a lot of heaters,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “Usually he tries to go to the split more often, but he fed us a lot of heaters and we put some good swings on it. But we get a couple of those to drop, maybe we score early. But that wasn’t the case. Sometimes you have to tip your cap. He pitched really well.”
A couple of insurance runs in the seventh off Guerra (who retired only one of six batters faced) and Ronald Acuña Jr.’s two-run blast off McGowin in the eighth added to the deficit and left the Nationals’ long streaks in serious jeopardy.
By night’s end, both streaks indeed had been snapped. And the Nats’ chances of gaining ground on the National League East leaders had taken a big blow.
“I guess after the series, two (wins) is pretty good,” Dozier said. “But at the same time, we had a chance to definitely win three of them, if not all four. But at the same time, they are a really good team. Still got some ground to make up. A lot of baseball left.”