The Nationals again built an early lead on a team with a losing record on Friday night, as they've grown accustomed to in recent games. But again their offense locked up in the later innings and again their bullpen couldn't hold up their end of the bargain.
This time it was against the Colorado Rockies, who rode an eighth-inning grand slam by slugger Carlos Gonzalez to a 5-4 comeback victory.
The Nationals lost, but there were several moments where they had the Rockies exactly where they wanted them, including with Bryce Harper up in the bottom of the ninth representing the winning run. This loss wasn't on Harper, though, as Drew Storen allowed the big hit to Gonzalez to snap what was one of the best stretches of the veteran reliever's MLB career.
Storen took the mound in the top of the eighth and made quick work of Rockies' left fielder Kyle Parker. Then Colorado summoned a familiar foe to pinch-hit for the pitcher. Daniel Descalso, who landed the game-tying hit off Storen in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS back when he was with St. Louis, stepped into the box.
Descalso worked a walk and was joined on base by Jose Reyes, who singled to right field, one out later. Nolan Arenado then reached on a slow grounder that rolled to the left of the pitcher's mound.
That brought up Gonzalez, the Rockies' cleanup hitter who is among the most dangerous hitters in baseball when he's at his best. Storen started the count with a fastball inside for a ball. Then he served up a 94 mile per hour heater that stayed up and in. Gonzalez got every bit of it and pelted the ball off the backwall of the Nats' bullpen in right field. It was a no-doubter and it turned the game from a three-run Nats' lead to a one-run deficit.
"I just had a couple things … a couple guys get on base for various reasons and then make one bad pitch, a fastball come over the plate to a really good hitter. It’s kind of the nature of the business," Storen explained.
"He's had a very good season for us, it just wasn't his night," Matt Williams said. "Just made a mistake to a guy who has recently been really hot and has power. It's the game of baseball."
Storen wanted the fastball to stay further inside, but it hung just enough over the plate for Gonzalez to turn on it. Gonzalez said afterwards he was waiting for the pitch.
"The way they pitched me the whole night I was kind of prepared for that fastball middle-in," he said. "I’m hitting in the cleanup spot and that’s what we get paid to do.”
The loss leaves the Nationals at 56-52 on the season and losers of six of their last eight. They are 2 1/2 games behind the New York Mets for the first time since May 12 and now sit four games out of the last NL Wild Card spot.
This particular loss was as stunning as any this season with the way their fortunes turned so quickly. It continued what has been a trying week for a team that hasn't found their way since the All-Star break. So far they have failed to take advantage of a homestand against sub-.500 teams, a troubling sign given they play at the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants following this weekend.
All that said, the Nationals remain adamant about not worrying about the big picture just yet.
"Storen came out with his best, and CarGo came out with his best. Sometimes you've got to tip your cap to the best in the game, and CarGo's one of them," Harper said. "Hopefully we can go back out there tomorrow and go get them tomorrow and see where we're at at the end of the day."