The Nationals have managed to stay in first place in the National League East, the only division in the NL in which all teams have winning records, despite a rash of injuries to vital players and thanks, in large part, to the strength of their starting pitchers. And while they maintained their hold on first place over the Miami Marlins by a sliver, losing close games because of small mistakes yields little joy.
The game started with unusual heroics, back-to-back home runs from bench player-turned-everyday-leadoff hitter Lombardozzi and teenage phenom Bryce Harper. And on the mound was one of the major league’s best pitchers so far this season, Gio Gonzalez, who had been on a recent string of stellar outings.
Spot Gonzalez a quick lead and all should seemingly go well against the Braves. Lombardozzi, a 23-year-old local from Columbia who had only 17 home runs in over 1,700 minor league at-bats, hit one on the third pitch he saw from starter Tommy Hanson. He hit the ball so hard it slammed off the back of the bullpen wall in right field for his first big league homer.
One pitch later, the 19-year-old Harper did him one better, crushing the ball into the second deck in right field. The crowd roared for two of the Nationals’ brightest young players. It was the first time rookies have hit back-to-back home runs to lead off a game in the modern major league era, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“As soon as they started getting up to high-five me, Harper hit his,” Lombardozzi said. “It was pretty funny.”
Then came those three crucial mistakes, starting in the fifth inning.
For much of Sunday’s first four innings, Gonzalez continued his mastery of his new surroundings. The Nationals shipped four of their best prospects to the Oakland Athletics for Gonzalez during the offseason because they saw potential in the former all-star, despite his reputation for inaccuracy. He has blossomed into one of the major leagues’ best pitchers, with a rising fastball, sharp curve and good location.
“His command was way off today,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “He really couldn’t get the ball in and he wasn’t using the inside of the plate. Just a rare occasion that he didn’t have pretty good command and today was one of them.”
Gonzalez showed signs of laboring more than normal, taking 66 pitches to work through four innings, falling behind and missing high. Then the blunder occurred. First baseman Adam LaRoche nabbed a ground ball hit by the speedy Michael Bourn deep in the hole, and Gonzalez ran to cover first but he did so with little urgency, and Bourn slid safely head first into the base, putting a runner on with no outs.