PHILADELPHIA — The Nationals’ 8-6 loss to the Phillies on Wednesday night can be distilled to two distinct bullpen usage strategies employed by the managers. On one side, Washington Manager Dave Martinez made gambles on pitchers already being pushed to their limits, pitchers from whom he was hoping to squeeze one more out. On the other, Philadelphia Manager Gabe Kapler opted for pitching change after pitching change, unabashedly playing the numbers and risking running out of relievers if the close game were to head into extra innings.
In the end, Martinez’s trust in his two pitchers backfired and Kapler’s aggressiveness produced a victory. The divergent approaches became evident in the fourth inning. The Phillies sent out Luis Garcia to replace starter Jake Arrieta, a former Cy Young Award winner who had allowed four runs and thrown 75 pitches in three innings, as the first of their seven relievers used. Martinez, meanwhile, decided to let his starter, Gio Gonzalez, who had allowed a two-run single to Arrieta earlier in the game, attempt to pitch out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth. Gonzalez fell flat on his face, allowing a grand slam to Carlos Santana.
“I liked Gio in that spot,” Martinez said. “I really did. I didn’t think he was going to give up a grand slam, but hey, I’ve said it before: When we get good starting pitching, we have a chance to win the ballgame. We were ahead and just couldn’t keep the lead.”
Two innings later, right-hander Jimmy Cordero surrendered the go-ahead single to Jose Bautista on his season-high 42nd pitch. The two hits accounted for five of Philadelphia’s eight runs and prevented Washington from completing a three-game sweep. Instead, the Nationals dropped to 67-67 and fell short of their first four-game winning streak since May. The Phillies (71-62) won for just the third time in 11 games.
Outfielder Juan Soto needs a day off soon, and Martinez, the person with the power to give him one, knows it. The Nationals’ teenage sensation has been in the starting lineup every game since July 5, a streak that reached 49 games Wednesday. But Martinez insists Soto, despite an August swoon, has not worn down. So besides forcing him to cut down on his game preparation and workouts, Martinez keeps writing Soto’s name in the lineup card.
On Wednesday, Soto, displaying no signs of fatigue, trotted around the bases for the 16th time as a major leaguer after depositing a 3-0 pitch from Arrieta just inside the left field foul pole and into the seats. The two-run home run in the third inning elevated Soto into a tie with Ken Griffey Jr. for fourth all-time in home runs among teenagers and gave Washington a 4-2 lead. The homer was one-third of a three-part barrage, one the Nationals unloaded without Bryce Harper (illness) in the starting lineup. Two batters before Soto’s poke, Trea Turner blasted a two-run shot to tie the score at two. Anthony Rendon added a solo shot in the fifth off Garcia.
But Gonzalez couldn’t capitalize on the support. Asdrubal Cabrera began his fifth-inning downfall with a leadoff single. Roman Quinn followed another single. Then Gonzalez struck out Rhys Hoskins and Cesar Hernandez — the Phillies’ No. 2 and 3 hitters — producing hope of an escape. Wilson Ramos, a former National, was up next. Martinez had Cordero and lefty Tim Collins warming in the bullpen. Cordero was an option to face the right-handed-hitting Ramos, a menacing slugger having an all-star season. But Martinez chose to stick with Gonzalez. He issued a walk to load the bases for Santana.
Santana is a switch hitter with a higher slugging percentage against lefties but a better on-base percentage vs. right-handers. Martinez had another choice to make. He chose Gonzalez again. Two pitches later, Santana launched a 417-foot blast to straightaway center field to put the Phillies ahead 6-5.
“The team gives you that much run support, and all of a sudden it’s just one damn pitch,” a despondent Gonzalez said. “That’s all it was.”
Gonzalez completed the inning to end his night having allowed six runs on six hits and thrown 98 pitches. He walked three and struck out six in what could be his final start with Washington; the Nationals, who recently sold off Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams, can trade Gonzalez to any team until Friday because he passed through revocable waivers.
“I’m still here,” Gonzalez said. “I’m still here wearing a Nationals uniform, and until then there’s nothing much I can say. I’m still wearing Nationals gear.”
Washington’s deficit was fleeting. Wilmer Difo led off the sixth with a single before Andrew Stevenson, pinch-hitting for Gonzalez, knocked a one-out RBI single to knot the score at six. The Phillies seized the lead again in the seventh when Cordero, who was sitting at 98 to 100 mph throughout his outing, faltered after having thrown three pitches over the previous six days.
The Nationals brewed a scoring opportunity in the eighth, which started with Difo singling off Pat Neshek. Neshek, a right-handed sidearmer, had just entered the game as Philadelphia’s fifth reliever. The Phillies had few options remaining, but Kapler pulled Neshek for Luis Avilan, a lefty, once it was announced that Harper was pinch-hitting for Michael A. Taylor. Avilan walked Harper, and Mark Reynolds entered to pinch-hit in the pitcher’s spot, which prompted Kapler to summon another reliever with runners on first and second.
This time, Kapler went with Tommy Hunter, leaving just Adam Morgan in his bullpen. Reynolds flied out. Then Adam Eaton grounded into an inning-ending double play, rendering Kapler’s gambles the right ones. Martinez’s risks went awry. And that was the difference.