CHICAGO — The answer to how the Washington Nationals would achieve their latest win seemed to reveal itself in the second inning Saturday afternoon. Chicago White Sox starter John Danks walked off the field, a strained muscle having ended his day after six batters. The Nationals could feast on Chicago’s bullpen and chalk up another win. Just the usual.
“I thought we got a break,” interim manager John McLaren said. “I thought we were going to hit their bullpen.”
But after spending two weeks convincing themselves they can’t lose, the Nationals lost to the White Sox, 3-0, before 23,008 at U.S. Cellular field, just their second defeat in 14 games. The Nationals managed two hits and struck out 11 times over 71 / 3 innings against the White Sox’ bullpen, which received a dominant cameo by veteran ace Jake Peavy, making the first relief appearance of his career. The Nationals’ 10th shutout of the season wasted Tom Gorzelanny’s gritty, 112-pitch performance just miles from his home town in suburban Chicago.
The Nationals desperately needed innings from their starter after their 14-inning marathon Friday night, and in his second start back from the disabled list Gorzelanny delivered. He allowed one run in seven innings, striking out eight.
“I realized that today was a big day,” Gorzelanny said. “I had to go out there and give everything I had to try to get as far as I can in this game.”
The White Sox’ only run off Gorzelanny came in the first inning. Brent Lillibridge and Brent Morel led with off with singles, and Carlos Quentin followed with a sacrifice fly deep to left. In his previous start, Gorzelanny allowed five runs and 10 hits in 42 / 3 innings, and his beginning to Saturday’s game was ominous given the state of the Nationals’ bullpen, where everyone had pitched the night before.
After those first three batters, Gorzelanny responded with exactly the innings-eating performance the Nationals needed. He pitched constantly with men on base, allowing seven hits and a walk and completing none of his innings in order until the seventh. But he dodged trouble by finding his strikeout stuff, which had deserted him in his last start. Gorzelanny struck out one batter last Sunday. On Saturday, he struck out eight, six of them swinging, and three of those by former National Adam Dunn, whom the home crowd booed vociferously after each whiff.
“He did an incredible job,” McLaren said of Gorzelanny. “The way it looked in the first inning, I wasn’t sure if he’d give us five [innings]. He did us a great service.”
Gorzelanny’s performance was upstaged, though, by Brian Bruney and Peavy, who had made 238 starts in his 10-year career without coming out of the bullpen. Bruney, whom the Nationals designated for assignment last season after an implosive six weeks, allowed one hit in 21 / 3 innings. Peavy dominated for four innings, allowing a single and no walks while striking out seven.
Before each series, the Nationals’ hitters gather in a small room adjacent to their clubhouse. With hitting coach Rick Eckstein, they watch video and study tendencies of each starter they will face and the relievers. Peavy, who started Wednesday for Chicago, fit neither category. “I didn’t see Peavy’s name on that list,” McLaren said.
Though the Nationals never mentioned Peavy in their hitters’ meeting, they still gave credit to his pitching. “The bottom line is, we just didn’t swing the bats well today,” third baseman Jerry Hairston said.
“Peavy was unreal,” McLaren said. “He had some pitches that were unhittable. We know Peavy. He’s been in the league a long time. That Peavy was stellar.”
The Nationals did not take batting practice before the game, a directive from McLaren to try to provide players a respite following Friday night’s epic. “Everyone was pretty ready to go,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. Still, returning to the park less than 12 hours after a tense, emotional game ended was a drain.
“The answer is yes,” McLaren said. “Let’s be honest.”
The Nationals trailed by three runs entering the ninth inning, which for them still seemed surmountable. They had overcome a four-run deficit in the ninth to win one game and three blown saves to win another in the past week alone. Saturday was different, and the Nationals went quietly against White Sox closer Sergio Santos.
The Nationals have experienced a career’s worth of strange moments recently — “an emotional roller coaster,” McLaren said before the game. Their manager, Jim Riggleman, resigned, and they found another manager, Davey Johnson, who won a World Series before a few of them were born. Saturday, they added to that a feeling that had become strangely foreign: losing.