It was MacKenzie Gore's world for seven innings on Sunday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium. When he struck out Michael Massey on three straight sliders to end his 7th inning of work, Gore had completed one of the best starts of his young career, and one of the best starts by a National this season. He totaled 11 strikeouts and allowed just three hits and one walk for one earned run, the lone blemish coming on a MJ Melendez solo home run in the 7th. Unfortunately for Gore and the Nationals, his exquisite outing wasn't enough as the team let a close one slip away in a walk-off loss.
The Nationals took an early 2-0 lead behind Gore when Ildemaro Vargas flew an RBI double off the top of the wall in right-center field, and then came around to score on an RBI single from Michael Chavis. Those fourth inning runs would be all they got against Royals pitching, despite several opportunities. Riley Adams struck out in two consecutive RBI chances, with Vargas on 3rd in the 6th inning with one out and then with the bases loaded and one out in the 8th inning. Aroldis Chapman worked out of that 8th-inning jam to enable the Royals comeback victory.
To follow Gore, Chad Kuhl came out of the bullpen for the third time this season, after never doing it last season, and immediately allowed a huge Edward Olivares solo home run to tie the game. The Royals opted to use their closer in a tie game in the 9th, and Scott Barlow's scoreless inning earned him the win after the Royals walk-off. Chad Kuhl remained in the game for the bottom of the 9th, attempting to force extra innings, but was in danger after striking out Bobby Witt Jr. when MJ Melendez advanced to second base on a fielding error from Dominic Smith: a ground ball right between the first baseman's legs. With two outs and a runner on second base, Michael Massey lined a 1-1 slider just in front of Lane Thomas to clinch the 16th win of the Royals season.
Nationals Game Review
What Went Right?
MacKenzie Gore's stuff was absolutely incredible from start to finish. Gore generated 23 swings and misses and was efficient enough to complete seven strong innings. His three-pitch mix of fastball, slider, curveball was working perfectly and his fastball was consistently touching 97 as Royals hitters looked like they had no chance against the lefty. Even the one home run Gore allowed came on a well-placed heater to the outside of the plate; the pitch was hardly a hanging mistake. Gore set a career-high in strikeouts and bounced back from a few substandard starts.
This is the version of Gore that was once considered the top pitching prospect in baseball, and the one that the Nationals valued highly as a key piece of the return for Juan Soto. When everything is working for Gore like it was in this start, he is the number one most exciting player on the Nationals right now. Gore's next start at home against Bryce Harper, Trea Turner, and the Phillies will be a must-watch for Nationals fans.
Aside from Gore, the Nationals team had few bright spots. Dom Smith and Michael Chavis both reached base three times and Stone Garrett looked dangerous at the plate. It's a shame that the lineup couldn't generate enough to earn MacKenzie a deserved win in this series finale.
What Went Wrong?
Well, the team blew a winnable game. It's easy to place all of the blame on Chad Kuhl for allowing a game-tying home run and then a walk-off rally, but there's more context to consider. Kuhl entered a day game in the 8th inning after earning his first career save in a night game two days before. Kuhl has limited experience as a reliever and is coming off of a recent IL stint after pitching badly enough to lose his rotation spot while he was hurt. Clearly, his high-leverage usage in this game was a desperation play for a fatigued Nationals bullpen.
While Kuhl was clearly the wrong pitcher to call on to seal a close game, the Nationals were limited by the heavy load of high-leverage spots they've been in for five consecutive games. Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey, and Carl Edwards Jr. had each pitched three of the past four days, and Mason Thompson threw two innings the previous day. Erasmo Ramirez and Andres Machado may have been available but have each struggled in recent appearances. To pick between them, Kuhl, and long man Thaddeus Ward is no easy choice; I may have preferred Machado's experience in a traditional reliever's role, but there's no clear winner among sub-replacement choices. Any of the options may have blown the game in the way Kuhl did, but it is Kuhl to wear the blown save and the loss. The only upside is that, in a way, he saved the rest of the bullpen to prepare for their upcoming games.
The result of the bullpen's failure is a loss in a more than sweepable road series. The Nationals have gone a long time without a sweep, especially one on the road, and its easy to see why with the overall lack of execution against a poor Royals team. Once the Royals tied the game with a home run in the 8th inning, their team and their fans surged with energy and closed out the game with a walk-off.
Washington Nationals Record: 23-30
When is the Next Nationals Game?
The Nationals open a 3-game series away to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday night at 9:10 PM EST. Trevor Williams is slated to start against the ascendant Dodgers prospect Bobby Miller in his 2nd career start. Los Angeles enters the series 32-22, leading the NL West, but are coming off a loss to the Rays and 6 losses of their last 10 games. Williams will be followed by Jake Irvin and Patrick Corbin as the Nats look to steal a series against a perpetually strong Dodgers squad.