Davey Johnson called it "a fun game." Saturday night's game between the Nationals and the Phillies featured a lot of strategy, a lot of "chess moves" as the Nationals manager called them. Pitching changes, pinch hitters, pinch runners. All that and more. The Phillies even put the potential winning run on base via an intentional walk.
Yep, it was a blast all right.
"Except," Johnson noted, "we lost."
That does tend to put a damper on things. Earlier in the season, the 5-4 loss to the Phillies could have been chalked up as a competitive, interesting game that just happened to go the other team's way. It happens a lot over the course of a long season.
But now? There's no room for such games, even as well as the Nats have been playing lately. The loss snapped a seven-game winning streak. More important, it dropped Washington back to 5 ½ games behind the Cincinnati Reds in the battle for a wild-card playoff berth. Before Washington even took the field, Cincinnati had dispatched Milwaukee 7-3.
The Nationals, who have won 24 of their past 34 games, have 14 games left. Making up 5 ½ games in that short of a stretch is not impossible. It's also not easy. There may not be room for more than another loss or two.
"We're working so hard, we're doing everything we can, we've gone on a great streak," said Gio Gonzalez, Washington's starting pitcher Saturday. "To see this one loss feels like a big blow to the stomach. We're not counting ourselves out. We still have a chance."
The Nationals clubhouse was quiet after the game, as it usually is after a defeat. They're trying to remain upbeat in the big picture. While the math is tough with only 14 games left, they are not eliminated yet.
"We've come this far," said Denard Span, the leadoff hitter who extended his hitting streak to 25 games with a single in his first at-bat.
"Nobody expected us to be where we are now two weeks ago. So we just have to keep battling. We've played good baseball. We can't get too down on ourselves. We have to regroup and be ready to come back tomorrow and get a win and get back on the right track."
But the Nats also know they're not in position to absorb too many more defeats.
Gonzalez was kicking himself over one pitch that came in the fifth inning with the game tied at 1. Philadelphia's Carlos Ruiz hit it for a three-run double over the head of right fielder Jayson Werth.
Earlier in the inning, Gonzalez gave up a one-out home run to John Mayberry that tied the score. He then gave up two singles, got an out and walked Chase Utley before Ruiz' double. Johnson said Gonzalez "just had that one inning where he looked like he lost his command."
Gonzalez seemed to take a bit of an exception to that suggestion.
"I was one pitch away from getting out of the inning. I don't think I lost it too much," he said. "To give up those runs makes a huge difference. That could have changed the whole game."
A few stalls down, shortstop Ian Desmond was mad at himself over a baserunning blunder in the third inning. Washington had the bases loaded and one out. On a sharp grounder to short, Desmond was thrown out at third. The Nats ended up with no runs.
"I made a pretty big mistake running on that ball *** it just kind of flipped the momentum," Desmond said. "They came back, put up four runs. I've made a lot of errors in the big leagues, but that was probably the worst one. That was a mental error. I wasn't paying attention to the signs."
Philadelphia tacked on a run in the seventh. Washington came back with three in its half of the inning. In the ninth, Ryan Zimmerman led off with a sharp double. Werth and Desmond flew out. The Phillies then elected to walk Bryce Harper to get to Wilson Ramos. He hit the ball solidly, but right at shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who made the easy play at first.
Game over, streak over.
Season over? Not just yet, the Nats say.
"We're playing with house money," Desmond said. "Everybody kind of wrote us off, and we're fighting our way back in. Just keep on playing and what will be will be."
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