DENVER — Blame what you want for the late-August urgency. Choose from injuries, underperformance and/or bad luck to explain why these Washington Nationals are trailing in the National League East. Whatever the reason — and there are many – the consequence is this: The Nationals need to rally in the season’s final six weeks to salvage a season whose early promise is still unfulfilled.
For two nights in Denver, they sprung to life late, their offense coming off the ropes to produce a pair of victories. As they pursued a third straight win Thursday and hunted their first series sweep since early July, a third rally fell short. The Nationals lost to the Colorado Rockies, 3-2, completing a three-city road trip 3-7. The latest loss dropped them four games back of the idle New York Mets, 21/2 games further behind than when they left, a half-game closer than they were after being swept by the Giants last weekend in San Francisco.
“We got beat around there in San Francisco. We took one in the chin, but I felt like we responded from that, came in here and played good baseball,” starter Max Scherzer said. “We’re going to grind this thing out all the way to the end.”
Scherzer bounced back from his worst outing of the season, a three-inning, six-run showing in San Francisco, but the Nationals trailed 2-0 heading to the top of the seventh inning.
They could not solve Rockies left-hander Yohan Flande, who completed seven innings for the first time in his career, aided by the fact that the Nationals did not get a hit for five innings after Bryce Harper doubled in the first.
“Flande was pretty good tonight,” Harper said. “Kept us off balance all night.”
But with two outs in the seventh, Flande walked Ryan Zimmerman. Aggressiveness and early swings doomed the Nationals early, but Michael A. Taylor chose wisely when he swung at a first-pitch change-up. He crushed it 493 feet to left-center, the longest home run in the majors this season by 10 feet.
“I was fired up. I was pumped,” Scherzer said. “That’s what we need. We were kind of grinding at the plate all night.”
So Scherzer started the seventh suddenly tied, with 95 pitches to his name, tasked with holding Jose Reyes, Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado down. He could not. Reyes opened the inning with a single, ending Scherzer’s evening, and scored when Ben Paulsen singled against Nationals’ right-hander Blake Treinen with one out.
That hit came after left-hander Felipe Rivero — brought in to face lefty Gonzalez — could not get the Rockies all-star right fielder out, conceding a single. With two on and no one out, Treinen struck out Arenado looking, fooled by a sharp slider. But lefties have troubled Treinen all year, and Paulsen continued the trend.
“Once Reyes got the hit, then we’re matched up with the lefty,” Nationals Manager Matt Williams said. “Felipe threw a good fastball away, and he just hit it down the line. Blake made a nice pitch, too, but (Paulsen) got enough of it to get it in there.”
After scoring 11 runs in the eighth and ninth innings in the first two games of the series, the Nationals could not respond Thursday and Scherzer (11-10) took the loss after allowing three runs on seven hits and three walks in six-plus innings.
“It was just frustrating because I felt like it was good, but it wasn’t good enough,” Scherzer said. “I made the adjustment. Definitely my arm slot was higher. Really felt like my change-up was back. Really did some good things tonight. But they were just able to find a couple holes.”
After Scherzer’s shortest outing of the season, which consisted of three punishing innings last weekend in San Francisco, the right-hander spent four days working to restore his three-quarters arm slot, which he determined had dropped.
He corrected it Thursday, and his change-up reemerged, too. Scherzer believes that change-up is his second-best pitch, though he spent the early part of the season withholding it, not needing it the first time he faced unfamiliar lineups who could be turned away without it.
When Reyes doubled home a run in the fifth inning, he did so on a first-pitch change-up, advancing Charlie Blackmon — who hit one, too — to third. After he intentionally walked Gonzalez to load the bases, he struck out Arenado swinging at his work-in-progress cut fastball - his 200th strikeout of the season.
The Rockies added another run in the sixth when Flande chopped a ball 75 feet or so with two outs and a runner on third - too short for Ian Desmond to get to in time to throw him out, too wide for Yunel Escobar to cut off. The third run, scored when Scherzer was gone, doomed him and the Nationals, who put two men on in the ninth when Harper singled and Zimmerman walked. Taylor struck out to end it.
“I thought that was a great series, I thought that’s some of the best ball we’ve played all year long,” Harper said. “Being able to go home on a good note, winning two out of three against the Rockies, that’s good. We’re excited to get back home and play in front of our fans. I think we’re gonna go home and we’re gonna roll.”
The Nationals will arrive in D.C. early Friday morning, a few hours before their game against the Brewers. They will do so after their first series win since late July, four games back, with six weeks to rally.