ST. LOUIS -- The schedule presented the Nationals with a season-defining road trip, which started with them clinging to playoff hopes that have started to fade with each passing game. After losing consecutive games in heartbreaking fashion by sqaundering late leads, the Nationals could not finish off their own late rally Tuesday night, falling 6-4 to the Cardinals at Busch Stadium to seal a losing trip.
Giovany Gonzalez gave up five runs in four innings to put the Nats into an early deficit they could not overcome despite a late charge in the eighth, thanks to Bryce Harper's 30th home run of the season. Washington has lost four of the first five games of this road trip, six of its past eight overall and dropped to .500 again at 60-60. They are staring at a season-high eight-game deficit behind the first-place Braves in the National League East with 42 games remaining.
This season began with high aspirations in D.C. and the potential chase for a World Series championship. Instead, after back-to-back division titles, the Nationals are in jeopardy of missing the postseason for the first time since 2015.
"I really think we've been playing good baseball," second baseman Daniel Murphy said. "The fact that we haven't got our reward does not inhibit the fact that we've been playing good baseball. So, we've gotta keep trying to play good baseball and see if we can get on the other side of some of these ballgames."
With their bullpen depleted by injuries and unreliable, the Nationals were hoping for Gonzalez to pitch deep into the game or at least keep them in the game. He accomplished neither. The Nats were in a hole early with a three-run second inning, highlighted by a two-run homer to opposing starter John Gant. Command escaped Gonzalez to start the fourth inning, when he walked the first two batters and then gave up a two-run double to Kolten Wong.
After his first two months were worthy of All-Star consideration, Gonzalez has become one of the team's most inconsistent starters since the start of June with a 6.12 ERA in his past 13 starts, including Tuesday.
"Unfortunately, I'm not doing my part as one of the starting pitchers," Gonzalez said.
Gant held the Nats to one run on four hits through 5 1/3 innings and the Nats went quiet until a late charge in the eighth. Harper snuck a two-run homer just inside the left-field foul pole. Murphy singled home a run to trim the deficit to two runs.
It's the sort of effort and energy manager Dave Martinez has applauded time and time again from the Nationals, but their comeback attempt fell short in the eighth and Jordan Hicks tossed a scoreless ninth to seal another tough loss.
"This time of year, you can't be worn out," Martinez said. "You've got to keep fighting. We're playing for something. They know that, and they're not going to quit. ... We've just got to keep going. This thing will turn around. It will. We're good. I said that before. We're really good. We've had some bad breaks. But we're good."
Harper hit his 30th home run of the season in the eighth, the second time in his career he has reached that mark. His career high is 42, set during his MVP-winning 2015 campaign. He also homered on a 98.6 mph pitch, the fastest pitch he has homered against in his career.
HE SAID IT
"Just got to keep coming to the park and doing the things we can to hopefully win the game. Not really worry about the night before or anything like that, and do the things we can to win that day. … We have to go out there and take care of our business, because if we don't take care of our business, we won't be there." -- Harper, on turning the season around
"It's a tough loss, one of those losses you wish you could have bounced back. It's tough to say, but this game was determined on a home run from a person you didn't expect to hit a home run. So, that's why it's tough to swallow, one of those games you learn from and move forward." -- Gonzalez, on another rough outing
"The energy's there. These guys don't quit. And they're going to fight to the end. I love them. I really do. They're playing well." -- Martinez, on the morale of the team
Jeremy Hellickson will be on the mound Wednesday night against the Cardinals, trying to turn the tide in favor of the Nationals and snap their recent skid. He has rarely been allowed to pitch deep into games, but he has been one of the Nats' most consistent starters all year. In his most recent start against the Cubs, Hellickson carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning before he ran out of stamina. Left-hander Austin Gomber will be on the mound for St. Louis; first pitch is at 8:15 p.m. ET.