Aug 25, 2014, 11:50 PM EST
PHILADELPHIA — The way things have been going lately, the Nationals weren’t surprised in the least to mount a last-ditch rally against Jonathan Papelbon with two outs in the ninth Monday night.
The only surprise was that they couldn’t quite finish it off and wound up losing for only the second time in 14 days.
Not that they didn’t try their darndest to pull off another miracle. Down two runs with two outs in the ninth, Wilson Ramos tagged a solo homer off Papelbon, trimming the deficit to one. An Asdrubal Cabrera single through the right side kept hopes alive, and Nate Schierholtz’s sharp grounder up the middle looked for a moment like it might continue the rally … until everyone realized shortstop Jimmy Rollins was shaded in that direction and was able to make an easy play that secured the Phillies’ 3-2 victory.
“Nate hit the ball hard,” manager Matt Williams said. “If that ball gets through, you never know where we’re at.”
For two weeks now, the Nationals have become baseball’s hottest team thanks to a flurry over come-from-behind wins, each more staggering than the previous. But, as Williams has been quick to mention throughout: “You never can count on that.”
So Monday night’s loss was less about a ninth-inning rally that came up short and more about the little things the Nationals didn’t do well earlier in the evening at Citizens Bank Park.
There was a home run allowed by Tanner Roark on a 2-2 changeup, “but it didn’t change, really,” the right-hander lamented. There was another run plated off Roark thanks to a potential double-play grounder that scooted under Danny Espinosa’s glove at second base. There was another home run allowed by Jerry Blevins to a right-handed hitter (now batting a hefty .315 off the reliever).
But above all else, there were a whole lot of unsuccessful at-bats against A.J. Burnett.
The Nationals have faced the veteran right-hander five times this season and have inflicted their share of damage against him. In two head-to-head encounters in D.C., Burnett is 0-2 with a 10.57 ERA.
But they’ve also seen Burnett at his very best, especially in this ballpark. In three starts against them in Philly this season, he is now 3-0 with a 1.74 ERA, elevating things to a whole new level Monday night by striking out 12 in only seven innings of work.
“A guy like that, he’s been in the league for a long time,” Bryce Harper said of the 37-year-old hurler. “He knows how to pitch. He knows what he’s doing out there, and tonight, he was very good. Sometimes you’ve just got to tip your cap. Nothing you can do about it.”
Perhaps there wasn’t much the Nationals could do against Burnett, but they did have a couple of opportunities over the course of the evening. Most notably, they got a leadoff double from Ian Desmond in the top of the seventh in what was at the time a 2-1 game. But with a chance to move the tying runner up to third base by pulling the ball to the right side, Harper swung at the first pitch he saw and lofted a flyball to left field for a quick out.
“I mean, he gave me a pitch I could actually hammer a little bit,” Harper said. “I think I just missed that pitch from putting it about 10 rows deep. I wish I could’ve got him over on that, but I saw a pitch I could drive and I tried to drive it out of the ballpark.”
Harper wasn’t alone in his inability to advance Desmond. Wilson Ramos followed with his own flyball on the first pitch he saw, as did Danny Espinosa.
Three at-bats with the tying runner in scoring position. Three pitches seen. Three outs made.
“The objective there is to hit the ball on the ground, to his pull-side, worst-case scenario,” Williams said of Harper’s at-bat. “But he was just late on a heater. Wilson did kind of the same thing. And then we’re out of that inning. We’re not gonna bunt there. We were looking at Harp going up there and pulling a ball, and he just didn’t get it done.”
The Nationals squandered another leadoff double in the eighth, this time from Kevin Frandsen off lefty Jake Diekman, and that forced them to try to pull off their latest dramatic rally down two runs in the ninth off Papelbon. After Desmond and Harper struck out to open the inning, hope appeared lost.
In the visitors’ dugout, though, confidence remained. Given the way they’ve played over the last two weeks, how could it not?
“Two-run difference is not a big difference,” Ramos said. “We can come back in those moments.”
The burly catcher did his part, crushing an opposite-field homer off Papelbon to reduce the deficit to one run. Cabrera, who was out of the lineup after feeling a tug on his right side on a swing Sunday afternoon, then came off the bench and drilled a sharp single to right, appearing quite healthy in the process.
Up stepped Schierholtz in another pinch-hitting role, and it’s hard to find fault with the veteran’s swing. He smoked a sharp grounder up the middle, unfortunately right where Rollins was stationed.
Thus, the Nationals trudged back to their clubhouse on the losing end of this ballgame. It’s not something they’ve experienced much lately. Which gave them all the reason in the world to think they might not experience it once again on this night.
“Absolutely,” Harper said. “[Ramos] hits a homer, 3-2 ballgame, Droobs gets that hit and Schierholtz comes up. That’s a great inning for us right there. I wish I could’ve got on base for us and been a part of that. But sometimes you lose, sometimes you win. That’s all part of it.”
FINAL NL EAST STANDINGS
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