For that to happen, they will need continued strong starting pitching. They will need to capitalize when presented scoring opportunities, to dodge bullpen implosions, and to play blunder-free baseball to overcome their shortcomings. In other words, they will need to avoid what happened over the final four innings of their 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday night.
Until that point, Jeremy Hellickson was dealing in his second start as a National while the offense produced three runs with a couple of sacrifice flies and Michael A. Taylor’s first home run. But Hellickson faltered trying to get through the Dodgers’ lineup a third time, which incited a rapid collapse that prevented Washington from claiming a second straight series victory during its three-city, nine-game road trip.
Hellickson was slicing through the Dodgers’ lineup the first two times through, relying on a slow curveball and changeup to keep the Dodgers off-balance. He retired 14 straight batters after Corey Seager doubled and Cody Bellinger walked in the first inning. But the outing derailed in the sixth. First, Chris Taylor, the Dodgers’ leadoff hitter, hit a double down the right field line. Then Seager walked, and Yasmani Grandal followed with a groundball down the right-field line that became a two-run double.
“That’s a good, veteran lineup that makes you work,” Hellickson said. “You just can’t walk guys, that’s the main thing.”
Hellickson’s night was over at 93 pitches, an ending that, in hindsight, should have occurred a batter or two earlier. Sammy Solis entered and promptly surrendered a 111-mph line drive off the center field wall to Bellinger that tied the game. Then Solis walked Kiké Hernández, which coaxed Martinez to summon Trevor Gott to face Yasiel Puig for his first appearance since rejoining the Nationals from the minors on Saturday.
The clash began with Gott’s first pitch bouncing to the backstop, advancing the runners to second and third. It was a less than encouraging start. But Gott struck Puig out swinging at a 97-mph fastball and Chase Utley looking at a 96-mph heater to complete an improbable escape.
Gott, not Brandon Kintzler, was entrusted with the seventh inning because Ryan Madson was unavailable for a third straight game after pitching three in a row Monday through Wednesday so, as a result, Kintzler was being saved for the eighth. Gott completed the inning, but not before Austin Barnes was plunked, Chris Taylor singled and Seager gave Los Angeles the lead with a sacrifice fly.
“You just try to play matchups,” Martinez said of managing the bullpen with limited options available.
The two-inning stumble erased the crisp baseball with which Washington began the game. After squandering the only legitimate scoring chance they generated in their shutout loss on Saturday, the Nationals (10-12) didn’t waste the first chance they brewed Sunday. Ryan Zimmerman, suddenly looking like the Ryan Zimmerman of a year ago again, led off the second inning with a double for his fifth extra-base hit since Wednesday, advanced to third on Taylor’s single and scored on Pedro Severino’s sacrifice fly.
Taylor, who was moved up to fifth in the order, added to Washington’s lead in the fourth with a rocket into the Dodgers’ bullpen. He then doubled in the sixth for his fifth hit of the series, advanced to third on an errant pickoff attempt and scored on Moisés Sierra’s sacrifice fly. He finished a triple short of the cycle.
But three runs weren’t going to be enough, and the Nationals botched a chance to add another in the seventh. After Wilmer Difo walked to lead off the inning, Andrew Stevenson singled to right field, which would have put runners on the corners with no outs for Trea Turner. Instead, Stevenson tried to advance to second, thinking Puig’s throw from right field was heading to third base, only for it to be cut off, and he was thrown out. Turner and Howie Kendrick then both struck out looking, and walked away unhappy with home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi’s strike zone.
“It was definitely a ball,” Turner said. “I just don’t like how it always happens in a big at-bat. It’s never, I get you’re going to miss calls and whatever it is, it is, but it always happens when it’s a one-run ballgame, someone’s on third base, it’s never you’re up by 10, it doesn’t happen. So, I don't think that can happen in at-bats like that and it seems to keep happening.
Washington got another crack at it in the ninth, which began with Matt Adams and Difo singling off Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Difo’s single prompted Martinez to use Matt Reynolds — the last player remaining on his bench — to pinch-run for Adams at second base. But Stevenson and Turner struck out, and Kendrick’s flyball died at the warning track.
With that, the Nationals exited Southern California having blown a dominant performance from Stephen Strasburg and fumbled away a three-run lead on consecutive days. It was a missed opportunity to steal a series — even sweep it — from a potential October foe. Instead, the Nationals traveled to San Francisco with an even split through six games, still encouraged by their recent play but knowing they could’ve had more.