It had been a month since the Nationals last dropped two games in a row, not to mention a series, so the events of the last 48 hours have come as a bit of a shock. A Nats club that was sky-high just lost two straight to the Reds, who had lost 10 of their previous 11 games, and now needs a win Sunday to avoid a series sweep.
Back-to-back losses, of course, do not spoil what has otherwise been a brilliant May for the Nationals. Saturday's game did feature plenty of drama and moments of significance, so let's recap some of it...
GIO GONZALEZ GOT HIT BY 2 PITCHES, THEN FALTERED IN 6TH
Only nine previous times in MLB history, and not since 2001, had a pitcher been plunked twice in the same game. So add Gonzalez to that illustrious list after his 2-HBP performance Saturday.
Reds starter Raisel Iglesias got Gonzalez with a glancing blow in the top of the fifth, but one inning later he caught the right-handed-hitting pitcher square in the left elbow with a fastball. Gonzalez appeared in some obvious pain, though he made his way to first base and then returned to the mound for the bottom of the sixth.
That's when things began to fall apart for him. Holding a 5-2 lead at the time, Gonzalez immediately walked Joey Votto to begin the inning, then gave up a ground-rule double to Todd Frazier. Jay Bruce's RBI grounder brought one runner home. Then, as Blake Treinen warmed in the pen, Gonzalez surrendered an RBI single to Brayan Peña, ending his afternoon in unceremonious fashion.
Did the second plunking affect Gonzalez's ability to pitch? Perhaps, though there were no telltale signs of that, aside from the poor results. Regardless, the lefty's inability to deliver a shutdown inning after his teammates had taken a 3-run lead left a bitter taste after what had to that point been a solid start.
Of course, that would not have mattered much if not for...
CASEY JANSSEN BLEW AN 8TH-INNING LEAD IN UNSIGHTLY FASHION
We've only seen a little bit of Janssen since he made his delayed season debut last week, and most of what we had seen had been impressive (including a brilliant escape act at Wrigley Field on Wednesday night).
This, though, was not pretty. Handed a 5-4 lead in the eighth, the veteran right-hander proceeded to give up four runs on four hits and two walks. It didn't help matters that he was late to cover first base on Peña's grounder to the right side of the infield. Had Janssen broke immediately for the bag, he would've beaten Peña there and recorded the second out of the inning and possibly escaped without any damage in the end.
Then again, it may not have mattered the way Janssen pitched. He was eminently hittable on this afternoon, leaving his fastball and slider up in the zone and paying the price for it.
Janssen doesn't have blow-you-away stuff; his fastball sits in the 86-88 mph range. But he has a track record for success because he's always been able to locate those pitches down in the zone and on the corners. He knows that's what he needs to do to be successful. And he knows what happens when he doesn't do that, as we all found out Saturday.
Janssen's ragged eighth cost the Nats a win and made a footnote out of...
MICHAEL TAYLOR'S 3-RUN HOMER IN THE 6TH
A late addition to the lineup after Bryce Harper was scratched with a sore back, Taylor did it again, more than making up for the loss of the current best hitter on the planet.
With two on and two on in what was then a 2-2 game, Taylor crushed an 0-1 slider from Iglesias to left field to give the Nats the lead. This was the rookie's fourth homer, leaving him tied for fifth on the roster. That's fairly remarkable, considering he has far fewer at-bats (102) than everybody else higher than him on the list.
Taylor remains a work-in-progress. He's striking out in a ridiculous 40 percent of his at-bats, which isn't going to work long-term. But he has shown his ability to deliver big hits in big spots on more than one occasion. And with Jayson Werth likely out til August, Taylor is going to continue to get opportunities to prove he belongs here.
Speaking of playing short-handed...
YUNEL ESCOBAR GOT EJECTED ARGUING BALLS AND STRIKES
Escobar's argument with Andy Fletcher didn't last long, and the plate umpire probably should have afforded him some more leeway. But that doesn't excuse Escobar from failing to recognize the sitaution and the fact the Nats simply couldn't afford for him to get tossed in this game.
With Harper, Werth and Anthony Rendon all out of the lineup Saturday (not to mention Wilson Ramos as well), Escobar was one of the Nationals' most-accomplished hitters. He needed to keep himself in the game, especially for the ninth inning.
Aroldis Chapman is among the toughest at-bats in baseball, and who knows whether Escobar would've had any luck against the flame-throwing Cincinnati closer. But you would have to have liked his chances better than Dan Uggla, who while representing the tying run struck out on three pitches. Sure, Uggla was more likely to get a hold of one and tie the game with one swing, but Escobar was far more likely to make contact and potentially keep the Nats' rally going.
Escobar has been mighty important to the Nationals so far this season, but he and the rest of the team may be getting a huge boost very soon, because...
ANTHONY RENDON APPEARS CLOSE TO READY TO MAKE HIS SEASON DEBUT
Rendon played in his second rehab game for Class AA Harrisburg on Saturday, and this time he played the full nine innings. He went 0-for-3 with a walk and played the entire game at second base, offering further evidence that's the position he'll man when he comes off the disabled list.
When will that be? Well, it's probably going to be soon. It's possible the Nats could decide Rendon is good to go now, giving him Sunday off and then activating him Monday when they open a home interleague series against the Blue Jays. A more likely scenario would probably have Rendon playing another couple of full games on rehab, then joining the Nationals mid-week.
Either way, it appears the time has finally come for the Nats to get their best player from 2014 in the lineup for the first time in 2015.