The bleak facts and dreary scenes Thursday night suggested the Washington Nationals never had a chance. The Philadelphia Phillies smashed 17 hits. Gio Gonzalez walked off the Nationals Park mound in the fourth inning, his right hand balled into a fist and shoved into his glove. Fans flooded the exits and sound echoed off empty blue seats as the Phillies piled on with three runs in the eighth inning. Drubbings happen. This one felt, at once, closer and worse than most.
The Nationals’ 10-4 loss had the contours of a blowout. It didn’t have to be one. The Nationals staged a brief comeback following Cliff Lee’s sad, early departure and afforded themselves ample opportunity at a victory. The loss derived from their procession of miscues and mental errors. They lost because of butchered plays, truncated rallies and curious decisions. They botched plays in the field and cost themselves runs on the bases. They leaked oil.
“It was a bad day,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “It was a bad day for everything. Defense. Offensive. . . . Try to come back [Friday] and try to play hard. That’s it.”
Go beyond Gonzalez’s clunker, even if he allowed five runs on eight hits in 32 / 3 innings, his second start of fewer than four innings in his past three. The outing put the Nationals in a bad spot, but the play behind Gonzalez offered little support.
“It’s one of those nights when things just didn’t go right,” Manager Matt Williams said.
In Gonzalez’s ruinous fourth inning, when the Phillies turned a scoreless game into a 5-0 lead, Gonzalez yielded a stream of loud contact. But the Nationals could have averted some of the harm with smarter, sharper defense.
With one out, two runs in and runners on second and third, pinch hitter Domonic Brown walked to the plate. The infield moved in, trying to stem the damage. Brown nubbed a chopper to Danny Espinosa at second base. Grady Sizemore had started with a large lead at third base, and Espinosa had no chance at the plate. He still fired home. Sizemore slid in behind Ramos. Brown cruised into first, a chance at an out squandered.
“The hindsight play is just to get the out at first and give them that run,” Williams said. “We’re playing the infield in to cut down that run on a regular-pace groundball. It was just a little slow for him to get him at the plate.”
The Phillies pounded two more singles. Reeling and with the bullpen stirring behind him, Gonzalez showed enough resolve to induce a double-play ball. But when Espinosa flipped to second, shortstop Ian Desmond dropped the ball. He recovered in time for one out, but rather than an easy double play ending the inning, the Phillies pushed across another run. With the score 5-0, Williams trudged to the mound.
“I felt good,” Gonzalez said. “Some groundballs didn’t go my way. They found the holes. I got the pitch I wanted. I got the result I wanted. They just found their way through.”
With Lee out of the game, the Nationals chipped away with one run in the fourth and two runs in the fifth, but those two runs could have been more. Bryce Harper and Kevin Frandsen started the inning with singles, and Espinosa walked to the plate against left-hander Mario Hollands. Entering the night, Espinosa had a .849 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against lefties. In the third inning, he had plastered a double off the wall against Lee.
Now, with a chance to pull the Nationals close against a lefty, Espinosa tried to bunt for a base hit. He popped up to the catcher. Denard Span would continue his smoldering July with a two-run, bases-loaded single. Despite Espinosa’s popup, the Nationals had two on, one out and two of their best hitters awaiting. But Justin De Fratus relieved Hollands, Anthony Rendon lined out and Jayson Werth grounded to third.
Maybe they had not come all the way back, but the Nationals had made it 5-3. Williams summoned Jerry Blevins, who carried a 5.11 ERA overall while allowing a .333 batting average against right-handed batters. Blevins yielded two more runs, the key blow coming when Jimmy Rollins, a switch-hitter batting from the right side, knocked an RBI single to left.
“He had a couple of lapses out there with guys on base,” Williams said.
Even down four runs, the Nationals threatened again. Espinosa drove in Frandsen with a single in the seventh, then moved to third on Span’s single. Rendon lashed a liner to right, deep enough for Espinosa to score. He tagged up and bolted for home, but as the Phillies cut off the throw, he scurried back to third. Down three runs, third base coach Bobby Henley had told him only to bluff.
The Phillies made it irrelevant in the eighth. Craig Stammen hadn’t pitched since July 22, and the typically reliable long reliever allowed three runs. The Phillies toyed with the Nationals. When the Nationals declined to hold Chase Utley at first base, Utley took his lead directly in front of Frandsen, no matter where Frandsen went, even when he tried to step out of his way.
“We came home from a long road trip,” Frandsen said. “You hope to get off to a good start. We didn’t.”
The game still had a pall over it for Philadelphia. With two outs in the third inning, Lee threw Span a first-pitch cutter, 85 mph. Lee screamed an expletive, waved his arms at the dugout and pointed to his left elbow with his glove. By the time the Phillies’ athletic trainer reached him, Lee knew he was finished. Lee rarely betrays emotion, but anguish covered his face.
The Phillies announced Lee had suffered a left flexor pronator strain, a recurrence of the same injury that held him out for two months earlier this season. An MRI exam is scheduled, and Lee could miss the remainder of the season.
In his previous start, Gonzalez threw seven innings in a 1-0 loss. In the start before, he recorded only 10 outs. Gonzalez has shown frequent flashes of his best form — in seven starts since returning from the disabled list in mid-June entering Thursday, Gonzalez had a 2.30 ERA. But consistency has been elusive. His season ERA rose Thursday to 3.88.
“A lot of pitches in the middle of the zone,” Ramos said. “That was a problem today. A lot of pitches up in the zone, too. Those guys hit the ball well.”