For all the steps forward the Washington Nationals have taken in the National League playoff race over the past month, it’s the time of year when even the smallest step back can be the one that ends all hope. The Nats have to hope that Saturday wasn’t that step.
Washington fell behind the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday night thanks to one poor inning from Gio Gonzalez, and couldn’t make up all the ground, dropping a 5-4 decision to the Phillies at Nationals Park. The loss, coupled with the Cincinnati Reds win over the Milwaukee Brewers, left the Nationals 5 1/2 games behind the Reds in the chase for the NL’s final wild card spot.
Coming off a one-hit shutout in his last appearance, Gonzalez was tasked with keeping the Nationals winning streak alive, as well as holding firm in the playoff chase after Cincinnati’s win from earlier in the day. Things were going swimmingly early, as Denard Span took some of the suspense out of the occasion with a first-inning single to extend his hitting streak to 25 games. He would later come around on a sacrifice fly by Jayson Werth, putting Washington up 1-0 early.
It stayed that way until the fifth inning, when Gonzalez’s dam finally burst. A one-out homer by John Mayberry tied the game and seemed to unnerve Gonzalez, who then gave up singles to pitcher Cole Hamels and leadoff batter Cesar Hernandez. A two-out walk to Chase Utley loaded the bases for Carlos Ruiz, and the catcher didn’t disappoint Phillies fans, driving a base-clearing double into right field to put Philadelphia up 4-1.
Philadelphia tacked a run on in the seventh against Ian Krol, and appeared to be well on its way to victory. But Washington hasn’t been winning all these games lately by going down meekly, and the Nationals didn’t do it Saturday either.
The Nationals strung together three singles in a row to start the seventh inning against Hamels, driving him from the game and loading the bases. Ian Desmond got one run in with a one-out sacrifice fly, and Bryce Harper came through one batter later. The 20-year-old dropped a single to center that scored one run, and after Hernandez muffed the ball, Werth came all the way around from first base to make it a one-run game. Harper then stole third with Wilson Ramos at the plate, meaning any measly hit would tie the game. But Ramos, as hot as anyone lately, was punched out on a slider down and in by home plate umpire Jim Joyce, much to the displeasure of the Nationals, who contended the ball was off the plate,
Still, the Nationals had a chance in the ninth. Ryan Zimmerman, who somehow didn’t homer in this game, led off with a double, but was still there two batters later after Werth and Desmond each flew out. Phillies interim manager Ryne Sandberg, bucking conventional wisdom, then had Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon intentionally walk Harper — the winning run — in order to pitch to Ramos. This time, the move paid off, as Ramos scorched a ball back up the middle but was thwarted by Jimmy Rollins at short, who made the play to end the game.
Despite the loss, Washington still can make things interesting if it keeps winning. The rubber game of the series comes on Sunday afternoon, with Jordan Zimmerman (17-8, 3.36 ERA) looking for his NL-leading 18th win against Philly’s Tyler Cloyd (2-4, 4.56)