After rain, Dodgers rally to send Nats back under .500 (updated)

The largest crowd at a D.C.-area sporting event since Dec. 22, 2019, when the Washington Football Team hosted the New York Giants in Landover, gathered on South Capitol Street tonight to watch some baseball, get an early start on Independence Day weekend and witness a fireworks display on a picture-perfect Saturday evening.

What the sellout crowd of 42,064 at Nationals Park got instead was a compelling yet ultimately frustrating 5-3 loss to the Dodgers, a 1-hour, 44-minute rain delay that seemed to crop up out of nowhere and as a result a canceled fireworks show because the game didn’t end in time to beat the city’s late-night noise curfew.

Talk about a letdown.

Gomes-HR-Swing-Red-Sidebar.jpgNon-baseball matters aside, the game itself proved especially frustrating for a Nationals club that saw unlikely cult hero Paolo Espino match future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw for four innings: Each gave up three runs in his final frame, with Kershaw serving up a three-run homer to Yan Gomes.

But the fifth-inning rain delay forced both starters from the game and left it in the hands of the bullpens. And though the Nationals’ depleted relief corps put forth a quality performance, the one unearned run it allowed prior to the top of the ninth proved the difference in the game once the home team’s lineup couldn’t touch the Los Angeles bullpen.

The decisive run scored in the top of the sixth, with Wander Suero on the mound but not entirely responsible for what happened. Suero did hit Will Smith with a curveball to put a runner on base with one out, but he immediately got Albert Pujols to hit what should’ve been a routine double play grounder to short.

That’s when disaster struck. Alcides Escobar, the 34-year-old former World Series champion acquired from the Royals earlier today as the Nationals desperately try to account for injuries to Trea Turner, Jordy Mercer and several minor league infielders, bobbled the ball. And instead of taking the sure out at first, he compounded matters when he still tried to flip to second base to get Smith. That throw to Josh Harrison was late, and Harrison’s throw to first was late and offline, allowing the lead runner to advance all the way to third.

“Before the actual ground ball took place, I anticipated that if I get the hit, I’m going to for two. I’m turning two,” Escobar said in a postgame Zoom session via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “And the ball was hit very hard and sharply. So in my head, I knew even if I was able to flip and not get the out at second base, there was enough time to get Pujols out at first if it was still turned the way it could have. Things didn’t result that way, but I had just pre-set in my mind that I was going to turn two and the ball was hit sharply to me.”

And when third baseman Starlin Castro couldn’t make a play quick enough on AJ Pollock’s slow roller to third with two outs, Smith scored the go-ahead run and the Nationals found themselves trailing again.

Sam Clay and Austin Voth got through the seventh and eighth with the deficit still at one run, but Kyle McGowin allowed a critical insurance run in the ninth. Not that it mattered, because the Nationals lineup could not push across one run against five Dodgers relievers.

One good opportunity to score came in the sixth, when Joe Kelly (who famously served up Howie Kendrick’s 10th-inning grand slam in Game 5 of the 2019 National League Division Series) loaded the bases with two outs. But Gerardo Parra (who famously hit a grand slam at Dodger Stadium in May 2019) struck out on a curveball out of the zone and that killed that golden opportunity.

There would be one more, though, in the bottom of the ninth when Castro singled and Gomes walked, bringing Parra back to the plate representing the winning run with nobody out against Kenley Jansen. But Parra again struck out, as did Escobar. And when Josh Bell, pinch-hitting for Victor Robles with Trea Turner in the on-deck circle as a last-gasp hope, lined out to short, the game was over.

“We wanted to get Bell to a spot where he could drive in runs, try to win the game,” Martinez said. “If we tied the game, he was probably going to have to go play the outfield.”

So it was the Nationals couldn’t offer their biggest crowd since Game 5 of the 2019 World Series a victory and instead lost their third straight to the 2020 champs, falling back under .500 as the season officially reached its halfway point.

The large crowd was still making its way in when Espino took the mound to stare down the Dodgers lineup in the journeyman’s toughest test yet during this surprise season. And when Mookie Betts led off the game with a single to left, Espino looked like he realized this night would be no picnic. But the 34-year-old found his bearings, and though he uncharacteristically fell behind hitters with regularity, he promptly retired nine batters in a row, getting through the third inning on 40 pitches.

The second time through that lineup, however, proved a bigger challenge for Espino, who opened the fourth with two walks sandwiched around a single. That left the bases loaded with nobody out, and though he pitched effectively after that, he could not prevent all three runners from scoring on a pair of sacrifice flies and a Gavin Lux two-out RBI double.

“I don’t think I was thinking it in the moment, but I was trying to be a little careful because I know how good their lineup was,” Espino said. “It’s not that I was running away, but I was aware that they were a very good lineup. I think I was trying to hit my spots too much, too perfectly. And the balls were ending up a little bit off the plate.”

With Kershaw cruising along, retiring eight in a row after allowing a leadoff single of his own to Josh Harrison, the Nationals looked to be in trouble down 3-0. But then came a spark in the bottom of the fourth, in the form of a Juan Soto one-out walk and a Castro two-out single. And then came the big blast they so desperately needed.

With one mighty swing at a 2-2 slider from Kershaw, Gomes tied the game, sent the crowd into a frenzy and even made it rain. Yes, just as Gomes’ three-run homer was sailing into the left field bleachers, the skies opened.

They managed to finish the bottom of the fourth and Espino was able to retire Betts to open the fifth before the rain became too intense to continue. The players ran off the field, the grounds crew ran out there with the tarp and the large crowd tried to take cover under the concourses before getting too soaked.

“We come back, score three runs and then the rain slowed our momentum down,” Martinez said. “We had to come back out and regroup.”

It would be 1 hour, 44 minutes before play would resume, both starting pitchers unable to return after the long layoff. This game was now in the hands of others. And, sadly, there would be no fireworks at the end of it all.

There will, however, be another game to play in a little under 11 hours, followed by a cross-country flight for the start of a seven-game West Coast trip.

“If we weren’t leaving town tomorrow, I’d definitely sleep here, that’s for sure,” Martinez said. “It’s a quick turnaround. I told the boys: Go get some quick rest. We’ve got to get them at 11 tomorrow.”

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