CHICAGO -- The last time the Nationals played a game here at Wrigley Field, it was during the National League Division Series, one that resulted in a heartbreaking five-game series loss to the Cubs. The circumstances are different for this three-game weekend series, as Chicago stands with the best record in the NL and paces the NL Central, while Washington has underperformed after massive expectations.
That makes these games important for the Nationals, as they begin a seven-game road trip in their latest attempt to climb back into the race in the NL East. And in the seventh inning of a tie game Friday afternoon, they turned to right-hander Greg Holland to keep the game deadlocked. The Cubs were all over Holland, who issued a four-pitch walk to force in the go-ahead run in the Nats' 3-2 loss.
It was another close loss for the Nationals, who are now 11-19 in one-run games and fell to six games behind the first-place Phillies in the NL East.
"We just got to get better, fundamentally better. That's the key," manager Dave Martinez said. "We can't make those little mistakes, because when you're playing a team that's good, it's gonna cost you. And it did today."
The Nats jumped out for a pair of early runs against Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks on run-scoring singles from Juan Soto and Adam Eaton in the first two innings to take a 2-0 lead. Jeremy Hellickson made the lead stand, with command of his entire arsenal as he flummoxed the Cubs until he reached two outs in the sixth inning, and faced Chicago's lineup for the third time through the order.
The turning point for Hellickson was a 13-pitch battle with Anthony Rizzo, who outlasted him to draw a walk. Martinez said he believed Hellickson was gassed after that at-bat, as the right-hander followed with eight straight balls to walk both Javier Baez and Benjamin Zobrist to load the bases and end his day without giving up a hit. Sammy Solis came on in relief and promptly surrendered a two-run single to Jason Heyward to tie the game.
"I think I tried everything," Hellickson said. "That's why he's one of the best hitters in our game. He's just always up there battling. … I just can't walk guys right there. It just can't happen that way. I've got to make them put the ball in play."
That the Nationals needed to call upon Solis and Holland to get themselves out of big spots is a statement about the state of their bullpen. The team traded away both Shawn Kelley and Brandon Kintzler, who pitched in the eighth inning for the Cubs, and have lost both Sean Doolittle and Kelvin Herrera to the disabled list with injuries.
"I think we're doing just fine down there," Solis said. "I think everyone's real confident, especially having Holland now, veteran guy. Just keep pitching. The results will come. We've just got to attack these guys and get ahead, that's the biggest thing. Because we all know they're up there to swing. We need to make our pitches, and the results will come."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The Nats staged an attempt at a comeback when Kintzler walked the first two batters to begin the eighth. But C.J. Edwards came on in relief to escape the jam with an assist from catcher Willson Contreras, who picked off Soto at first base for the first out of the inning.
First-base coach Tim Bogar warned Soto -- who was picked off first by Hendricks in the sixth -- prior to the throw about Contreras' knack for throwing down to first, so Soto was aware but said he thought Rizzo was blocking first base on his way back.
"Just try to come back fast, and when I tried to come back, Rizzo was in my line to run," Soto said. "I can slide and go under him. Just timing."
In three of their last six games against the Cubs, including the postseason, Nationals pitchers have carried a no-hitter into at least the sixth inning (Stephen Strasburg in Game 1 of the NLDS, Max Scherzer in Game 3, Hellickson on Friday) but Washington has lost all three games.
Tanner Roark never appeared in the five-game series between the Cubs and Nationals during the 2017 NLDS, but he will get his chance to pitch at Wrigley Field on Saturday afternoon. He has found a groove in his past three starts, allowing a combined two runs over 22 innings (0.82 ERA) to bust out of his month-long slump. Jonathan Lester will be the opposing pitcher; first pitch is at 4:05 p.m. ET.