Nats rally to tie but can’t finish off Royals, lose in 11 (updated)

For nine days, the Nationals did just about everything right. They got clutch hits when they needed them. They made pitches when they needed them. They found a way to beat the Marlins and Tigers eight times in nine games and ascend to the top position in the National League wild card race.

So as tonight’s series opener against the Royals played out, it was only natural to assume the Nats would find a way to pull this one out as well. Someone would drive in the big run. Someone would make the big pitch.

And sure enough, someone did. Multiple someones, as a matter fact. Just not enough someones.

Catapulted by two clutch doubles from Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals stormed from behind to tie the Royals in the ninth and force extra innings. But they were unable to drive the winning run in despite golden opportunities in both the ninth and 10th, then watched as Kansas City scored three runs in the 11th (two on Zimmerman’s wild throw to the plate) to steal a wild 7-4 victory on a long, sticky night on South Capitol Street.

“Couldn’t get hits in a big moment,” manager Davey Martinez lamented. “We got one hit, scored one run and left the bases loaded. We just couldn’t get that hit today. Once again, I’m proud of the boys for fighting. When we were down, we came back and fought. We had our opportunities all night. We just couldn’t capitalize.”

Zimmerman-100th-RBI-Blue-Sidebar.jpgZimmerman was shaping up to be the star of the game after driving in two huge runs late, one of them representing his milestone 1,000th career RBI. But the luster came off in the top of the 11th when he made a nifty play to snag Alex Gordon’s hard grounder to first, then threw wide to the plate trying to cut down the lead runner (Martin Maldonado) and wound up letting two runs score.

“You’ve got to try to keep it at a one-run game right there,” Zimmerman said. “I think that was the right play. I just probably could’ve even set my feet a little bit more. I probably had even more time than I thought I did.”

The Royals had already taken the lead moments earlier on Adalberto Mondesi’s bases-loaded single through the left side of the infield, the first runs scored off veteran reliever Jonny Venters in three appearances with the Nationals.

It was a frustrating way to end a night that felt so promising. Zimmerman’s seventh-inning double down the left field line scored Adam Eaton and gave the veteran first baseman a long-awaited career milestone. Seventy-five days after recording the 999th RBI of his career, Zimmerman - who spent 8 1/2 weeks on the injured list with plantar fasciitis in his right foot - finally recorded his 1,000th career RBI. He becomes the 43rd player in major league history to drive in that many runs with one franchise.

“Obviously, a pretty cool milestone to get,” he said. “I think I’ve been lucky enough to play for a long time. Really lucky to play for the same team. So to have all those with this uniform on is special to me.”

Two innings later, with the Nationals down to their final chance, Zimmerman did it again, ripping his third double of the game, this one scoring Juan Soto to cut the deficit to one run and leaving the veteran in scoring position with nobody out.

And when Brian Dozier followed with a base hit to right-center, the game now rested not on Zimmerman’s bat but his aching legs. Chugging around third as Bob Henley furiously waved him around the bag, the 34-year-old narrowly beat Maldonado’s tag to tie the game and leave the home crowd and dugout roaring with approval.

The Nats got Dozier into scoring position but watched as Adri├ín Sanchez (the last man off the bench) took some mighty hacks when something far less would’ve sufficed and struck out. Trea Turner then lofted a fly ball to right, sending the game into extra innings.

“We’ve been so good at staying in the middle of the field,” Martinez said. “We had one instance where we just needed a fly ball. A sac fly would have won the game. We just couldn’t do that.”

Fernando Rodney, the 42-year-old pitching for the third straight day, escaped a jam in the top of the 10th, striking out Cheslor Cuthbert with a 98 mph fastball to gives his teammates a chance to win it.

But despite putting the winning run on third base with one out in the 10th, the Nationals stranded him there. Zimmerman popped up to short for the second out. And two batters later, Victor Robles stepped up with the bases loaded and grounded out on the very first pitch he saw, leaving his team with a staggering 18 runners stranded for the night. (They would add an 19th before the game ended.)

“We want to be aggressive in the strike zone,” Martinez said of Robles’ approach in that at-bat. “I thought he took a pretty good swing. He just beat the ball into the ground. I thought he had the right approach. He got a strike. He just hit the ball on the ground.”

The evening got off to a fine start, with Trea Turner crushing a leadoff homer over the left field bullpen, a 453-foot blast that was the longest of his career. But what looked like a potentially big night at the plate for the home team instead turned into an especially frustrating one.

They managed to put 11 batters on base in 5 2/3 innings against Brad Keller. But only the first one, Turner, managed to score. There were opportunities, but most came with two outs. And when nobody could convert, all those opportunities had gone to waste.

All of this left Austin Voth with little margin for error, and the right-hander could’ve used more in his third start of the season. The rookie struck out six batters in 4 1/3 innings, yet his biggest issue was an inability to put away hitters. The Royals fouled off pitches left and right, driving up Voth’s pitch count to 84 after only four innings.

“They definitely had me in a lot of deep counts, and they are a team that they are very aggressive,” he said. “They love to hack at first pitch, and I just wasn’t getting the first-pitch outs. I wasn’t getting early-contact outs, and I kind of need some of those throughout the game, throughout each inning.”

By that point, Voth had surrendered two runs. He took the mound for the fifth but lasted only three batters, leaving Javy Guerra to try to clean up a two-on, one-out mess. Guerra couldn’t do it; the veteran allowed back-to-back singles, each bringing home an inherited runner and extending the Royals’ lead to 4-1.

That’s the deficit the Nationals needed to make up. And they gave themselves every opportunity to do it, loading the bases in both the sixth and seventh only to come up short.

Turner tapped a changeup back to the mound for an easy out to end the sixth. One inning later - and three batters after Zimmerman notched his milestone RBI - Matt Adams was sent up to pinch-hit for Yan Gomes and struck out on a changeup and then a slider down out of the zone.

Nothing to worry about, though, because there were still some more fireworks to come later. Just not enough.

“A good night for the team, battled back like we’ve been doing all year,” Zimmerman said. “Tough loss, but we’ll wipe it out and come back and try to win tomorrow.”

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