By Matthew Jacobson
The Nationals entered the weekend having won their Friday afternoon tilt in walk-off fashion against the Philadelphia Phillies, and looked to carry that momentum into Saturday’s early afternoon affair on Jackie Robinson Day. It proved quickly to turn into a pitcher’s duel, with both Tanner Roark and Jeremy Hellickson tossing seven-inning quality starts with nearly identical lines (Hellickson allowed two earned runs on four hits, striking out two and walking one. Roark also allowed two earned runs on four hits, but with three strikeouts and no walks).
The Nationals took the lead in the third inning. Quality at bats from Jose Lobaton and Roark meant there were two on with two outs for Anthony Rendon, who singled in Lobaton. The Phillies responded in the next half inning; following back-to-back bunt singles, Odubel Herrera, who has made himself famous for being a pain in the Nationals’ backsides, doubled home Cesar Hernandez to tie the game. Maikel Franco would ground out to second, bringing home Howie Kendrick and giving the Phillies a 2-1 lead. Those two runs were all the Phillies could muster against Roark,
Chris Heisey, who started the game in left-field, tied the game in the bottom of the seventh on a solo homerun to left-center field, but the Nationals’ bullpen could not hold the Phillies in check, wasting a quality start from Roark, who retired 9 of the final 10 batters he faced. Joe Blanton came in for the eighth inning in a 2-2 game, hitting Freddy Galvis (another noted Nats Killer) on an 0-2 pitch before striking out pinch-hitter Brock Stassi (Galvis stole second on the play). Leadoff man Hernandez launched an 0-1 fastball over the wall in right-center, giving the Phillies a 4-2 lead that they would not relinquish. Joaqin Benoit recorded his first save of the season, retiring Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Ryan Zimmerman (the heart of the National lineup) in order.
The motif of the weekend was bullpen struggles, and that would not change in Sunday’s contest. Gio Gonzalez toed the rubber for the Nationals, and pitched an absolute gem, going 7.1 innings allowing five hits, three runs (two earned) while striking out three and walking two. Phillies starter Jared Eickhoff went six innings, surrendering three earned runs on eight hits, walking one and striking out five. In terms of scoring, Cesar Hernandez led off the game with a home run (his second in as many games), but the Nats responded in the bottom of the first on an Anthony Rendon ground-rule double. Bryce Harper launched a two-run shot in the bottom of the third inning, putting the Nationals ahead 3-1 (cue the internet jokes). Gonzalez appeared to be in cruise control, but the wheels began to come off in the bottom of the eighth. Hernandez (rising Nat killer) singled, and the next at-bat came around to score on a Daniel Nava single (he would move to second on a misplay by Jayson Werth). Gonzalez was given his marching orders following the Nava RBI, and left to a thunderous ovation at Nationals’ park, who has seen some rather Jekyll and Hyde performances from the Nats’ veteran southpaw over the years. Following a Maikel Franco strikeout, a 2-out single by Tommy Joseph tied the game at three heading into the bottom of the eighth.
Pat Neshek recorded a scoreless eighth inning for the Phillies, continuing his impressive start to the season, and in the ninth, it was Blake Treinen entrusted with holding the Phillies and giving the Nationals a chance to win the game with the score at 3-3. Well, as we have seen too often in this young season, Treinen was unable to get the job done, allowing a leadoff double to Aaron Altherr, who moved to third on an Odubel Herrera groundout. With one out and a runner on third, Treinen got exactly what he wanted, a playable ground ball to second baseman Daniel Murphy. Murphy’s throw home was a tad short, but still dealable for catcher Matt Weiters, who lost the ball on the tag opportunity, allowing a run to score and giving the Phillies their first lead of the contest. Treinen did well inducing a ground ball with a chance to get the force out at home, however the leadoff double came back to haunt him as it provided the potential winning run. Coupled with the missed chance for the force at home, spelled Treinen’s downfall, as he would allow a single and a walk, earning him a slow walk back to the dugout. Shawn Kelley got Franco to ground out to second base (this time an easier, force play for Murphy) and the Nationals headed into the bottom of the ninth in danger of dropping another series at the hand of the rebuilding Phillies.
Credit the Nats for not quitting, especially in this rubber game of a series with a divisional rival. Wilmer Difo, who has struggled at the plate during Trea Turner’s absence but has played some impressive defense, struck out. Chris Heisey would walk, followed by an Adam Eaton single. Rendon lined out sharply, setting the stage for Bryce Harper, who did not disappoint.
BAH GAWD HE’S BROKEN IN HALF! pic.twitter.com/WSjfwYJoHO
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) April 16, 2017
Harper mashed a walk-off home run to dead center field, winning the game for the Nationals, and, at least for now, allowing fans to forget about the early-season struggles of the bullpen. I’’ll save my feelings about what the Nationals should do with Mr. Harper for another column (hint: PAY THAT MAN), but Bryce came through with an enormous home run, winning the game, and thus the series.
The Nationals have an off-day today (my apologies for these late gamers to both the readers and Michael, who was off attending the Wizards playoff win), and are back in action tomorrow when they face the Atlanta Braves for the first time in their new ballpark. Max Scherzer (1-1, 2.13 ERA) goes against Mike Foltynewicz (0-1, 6.35 ERA).