The Nationals pitching staff has been far from perfect through the season’s first two-plus months, but too often that group has seemingly done enough to emerge victorious only to take a loss because its cohorts in the lineup weren’t able to provide ample support.
This afternoon in Philadelphia, Joe Ross and Kyle McGowin collectively gave up three hits and six total baserunners through seven innings. You’d think that would be enough to put the Nats in position to win. Or at least to have a good chance late.
You’d have thought wrong, because it wasn’t enough to avoid a 5-2 loss to the Phillies.
It wasn’t enough because one of the three hits Ross surrendered scored three runs. Because Sam Clay couldn’t avoid giving up an insurance run in the eighth. And most importantly because the Nationals lineup once again went limp at the plate.
One unearned run in the third and one solo Josh Bell homer in the eighth represented the entirety of the Nats offense on this hot June afternoon at Citizens Bank Park. It wouldn’t be so alarming if it wasn’t such a regular occurrence.
Since enjoying a brief offensive surge in Atlanta earlier this week, the Nationals have now totaled five runs and 14 hits over their last three games. They managed to win Friday night because Max Scherzer was brilliant and pitched them to a 2-1 victory. Their pitching wasn’t good enough in the other two games to pull off comparable wins.
“It comes back to the offense,” manager Davey Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “When you’re scoring two runs a game, the mistakes become magnified. That’s what’s happening right now.”
The day began swimmingly for Ross, who despite allowing some loud contact nonetheless prevented the Phillies’ first 10 batters from reaching base. With a 94-95 mph sinker that was tailing away from left-handed hitters as much as it has in any of his starts this season, Ross appeared in control and perhaps poised to pitch deep in the game.
“Something about the visual of the lefty batter, I feel like I can be a little bit more aggressive with it, knowing it will come back,” the right-hander said.
But then came the critical sequence of the afternoon, a five-batter stretch during the bottom of the fourth that featured only one well-struck ball but a host of unfortunate events to set up the one well-struck ball that proved the difference.
It began when Bell booted a grounder, the big first baseman’s first error of the season. It continued with an errant 0-2 slider by Ross that struck Bryce Harper (fresh off the 10-day injured list) in the back foot. Then came a bloop single by Rhys Hoskins on another 0-2 pitch, this one driving in a run.
“I knew I was probably going to make an error at one point or another,” Bell said. “It was just tough watching that one unfold and knowing what Joe had going there before that error. It definitely stunk. And I’m at first base like: ‘Can you please get a groundball double play right here?’ “
Alas, that’s not what happened next. Though all of the preceding events that inning could be chalked up by Ross to bad luck, what happened next could not. He grooved a first-pitch slider to Andrew McCutchen, and the veteran outfielder sent it flying 377 feet to left for a three-run homer and a four-run inning for the Phillies.
“I feel like I was one pitch away from being very good,” Ross said. “Obviously, the three-run homer was not what I was trying to do. But other than that, I thought I threw the ball very well.”
Ross would manage to get through the rest of his six-inning start without allowing any more runs, even though he at times looked like he was laboring and his fastball velocity dropped from 95 mph to 90 mph. He would depart with an odd pitching line: four runs allowed in six innings, but none of them earned because of the Bell error that preceded all of the Phillies’ scoring in the fourth.
Ross’ biggest contribution, though, might have come at the plate. For the sixth time in 17 at-bats this season, he recorded a hit, lining a single up the middle in the top of the third. Little did he or the Nationals know at the time that would be their only hit of the afternoon until the top of the seventh.
The lack of offensive output came in spite of the fact the Phillies’ starter, Spencer Howard, was pulled after 2 1/3 shaky-but-scoreless innings. Lefty Ranger Suárez entered from the bullpen to replace him, and though a run would immediately score (when Jean Segura booted Juan Soto’s tailor-made, 4-6-3 double-play grounder), that’s as much as the Nats would threaten against him.
Suárez would end up pitching three hitless innings in relief before handing the game over to the back of the Philadelphia bullpen.
There was one last gasp at a rally in the eighth when Bell homered off a 99 mph fastball from left-hander Jose Alvarado and Kyle Schwarber walked and Starlin Castro singled to follow. But Alvarado got Alex Avila to line out to center, Victor Robles to fly out to left on the first pitch and pinch-hitter Ryan Zimmerman to strike out on three pitches.
It was the latest sequence of events that perfectly encapsulated the Nationals’ season to date. They gave themselves one good chance to make something happen. And when they didn’t make the most of it, the game was all but lost.
“I feel for these guys, because they try,” Martinez said. “The effort’s there. ... We’ve just got to keep grinding. Sometimes I feel like we’re really close to busting out of it. I’m seeing good at-bats. But today just wasn’t that day.”