LOS ANGELES — The alarming frequency with which the Washington Nationals have lost close games lately has not made it any easier for them, maybe because they find fresh ways to fall by the same margin. Saturday night, they squandered a four-run lead to the Los Angeles Dodgers when their starter lasted only three innings and one of their relievers threw a pitch so wild it had the fans sitting behind home plate throwing hands in front of their face, ducking for cover.
For the Nationals, it’s getting hard to watch. The ultimate end of their 7-6 loss was vaguely familiar: the opposition pig-piling in the center of the diamond as their last reliever — Ryan Mattheus, in this case, having just yielded a walk-off double to Rafael Furcal — walked slowly off the field. The way it formed was new, with Tom Gorzelanny blowing an early lead and Henry Rodriguez firing a crucial and cartoonish wild pitch. The Nationals have lost seven consecutive games decided by one run, and the latest stung just the same.
“That’s just a tough one,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “It’s hard to take.”
The Nationals have played well enough to stay in most every game — they have lost by more than one run once in 15 games. Still, they’re 7-8 over that stretch. They haven’t been over .500 since July 8 and haven’t won consecutively in a span of 12 games, during which time they’ve lost by one run seven times. They missed a chance to reach .500 at the 100-game mark, settling instead for 49-51.
“We’re just kind of spinning our wheels right now a little bit,” said right fielder Jayson Werth, who smoked a two-run double in the first inning. “We’re playing good baseball. We’re just on the wrong side of things right now. We can win the series tomorrow. We need to get that game for sure.”
Saturday night, Gorzelanny stood in front of his locker and accepted the brunt of the responsibility. He took the mound six days after he sprained his ankle in Atlanta. Until Friday, doubts about if he would make his scheduled start still remained.
Gorzelanny flatly said his ankle injury had no effect on his start Saturday. Pitching coach Steve McCatty concurred. “But obviously,” Johnson said, “something was bothering him.”
In three innings, Gorzelanny allowed five runs on eight hits, hitting a batter, throwing a wild pitch and issuing an intentional walk. The Nationals took a 3-0 lead after the first inning, which Gorzelanny turned into a 3-2 advantage. Then the Nationals scored three more runs in the third to take a 6-2 lead. Gorzelanny allowed three run in the bottom half to make it 6-5.
“It hurts a lot,” Gorzelanny said. “I was given a great opportunity to get us through the game, get us a win. And I blew it. I didn’t make good pitches.”
The worst came at an inopportune moment. The Nationals led 6-4 with Ted Lilly came to the plate with two men on and two outs. Retire the pitcher, and Gorzelanny could salvage the inning, somewhat. He fell behind Lilly, then left a fastball over the plate. Lilly, a career .103 hitter, smoked an RBI double to right.
“You can’t give up a hit to the pitcher when an inning’s on the line,” Gorzelanny said.
The Nationals held their 6-5 lead into the seventh thanks largely to 22 / 3 scoreless innings by Ross Detwiler, who was, Johnson said, “outstanding.” Rodriguez recorded the final out of the sixth inning after a walk, and then he stayed in for a calamitous seventh.
Rodriguez had seemingly tamed his control issues, but in the seventh, they doomed him. Rodriguez allowed a one-out walk, and pinch runner Eugenio Velez stole second on a pitch that bounced in the dirt and took third on a groundball. With Velez on third, Rodriguez threw three consecutive balls to Furcal. Rodriguez saved his worst pitch for last, an absurdly wild pitch that hit the netting behind home plate on the fly; fans sitting behind the net instinctively flinched.
“I haven’t seen anything like that,” Johnson said. “That was a shocker. He’s still young, and when he gets in a tough situation, he thinks, ‘Harder, harder, harder.’ ”
Johnson instinctively yanked Rodriguez, the damage having already been inflicted, the score tied. Rodriguez has become a late-inning weapon for the Nationals, but his rocky outings, which have become more infrequent, still sometimes crop up.
“At times, it doesn’t look good,” McCatty said. “With the stuff he has, it’s a maturing process. He throws exceptionally hard. He’s going to throw some curveballs in the dirt and some fastballs that get away from him. You just kind of roll with it. You don’t like to see it, but it’s part of it. I think it’s getting less and less all the time.”
Once the Dodgers tied the game, the way the Nationals are going, the ending seemed inevitable. Mattheus pitched an easy 1-2-3 eighth, and Johnson sent him back for the ninth. After singles by Rod Barajas and Jamey Carroll, Mattheus faced Furcal with one out. He fell behind 2-0, and Furcal laced the next fastball to left. Laynce Nix made a diving attempt, but when the ball fell about a foot from his glove, Dodgers poured out of their dugout.
After their initial explosion, it seemed as though the Nationals could finally avoid late-inning anxiety. At first, the Nationals provided to believe the game wouldn’t come down to the final innings. Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Morse and Werth smacked consecutive hits off Lilly in the first, Werth providing the most crucial blow with a two-run double over Matt Kemp’s head.
In the third, Rick Ankiel ripped a two-out double to the right field corner, scoring two runs. He followed the clutch hit with a piece of athletic, aggressive base running. With Desmond at the plate, Ankiel timed Lilly’s delivery and bolted with a pitch. Desmond chopped it to the middle of the infield, and Ankiel rounded third and continued for home. When Desmond beat the throw at first, Ankiel had cruised across the plate to make it 6-2.