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Nats feel they're on the verge of breakthrough

Martinez sees key improvements from 'pen after close loss to Phils
@paul_casellaMLB
April 9, 2019

PHILADELPHIA -- The mindset inside the Nationals’ clubhouse on Monday night was simple -- this team is on the verge of taking off. That’s not the mantra one might expect following a 4-3 loss against the rival Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, but rarely can a team point to one

PHILADELPHIA -- The mindset inside the Nationals’ clubhouse on Monday night was simple -- this team is on the verge of taking off.

That’s not the mantra one might expect following a 4-3 loss against the rival Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, but rarely can a team point to one play in so many different facets of a single game that could have made the difference.

One mistake by starter Anibal Sanchez. One pitch by the bullpen. One play on the basepaths. One clutch hit in the ninth.

On Monday night, each one of those areas came up just short for a Nationals team that is 3-2 over its last five games, with both losses coming by a single run.

Starting pitcher

Anibal Sanchez pitched well for the majority of his 5 2/3-inning outing, but there was one pitch he wished he could have back. With the Nationals leading 2-0 courtesy of a two-run homer by Kurt Suzuki, Sanchez served up a chest-high fastball that Odubel Herrera crushed into the right-field seats to tie the game at 2-2.

“That’s baseball,” Sanchez said. “Everything can change by the pitch. We have to give credit to the other side, too.”

Sanchez also allowed a solo shot in the sixth to Rhys Hoskins -- the first of Hoskins’ two homers on Monday -- but that was simply a matter of Hoskins getting the better of a 3-2 curveball at the knees, which Sanchez confirmed “was the pitch that I wanted.”

Bullpen

The Nationals' bullpen finally made some big pitches on Monday night against the Phillies, but one mistake still proved to be the difference.

Entering the night with a Major League-worst 10.80 bullpen ERA, Washington first turned to the ’pen with two on and two out in the sixth, trailing 3-2 at the time. Reliever Wander Suero trotted in from the bullpen and quickly retired Maikel Franco to escape the jam.

One inning later, Tony Sipp came on to face Bryce Harper with a runner on first and two away, and he promptly retired the former National on just one pitch.

But trailing by one in the eighth, Justin Miller served up a solo homer to Hoskins -- his second of the game -- that proved to be the difference after Washington's ninth-inning rally came up just short.

“Our bullpen did well today,” manager Dave Martinez said. “It was one pitch that Miller didn’t quite get in to a pretty good hitter. Other than that -- if we keep playing like that, I really believe we’re going to win a lot of games.”

Baserunning

After staking the Nationals to a 2-0 lead with his first homer of the season -- and his first in a Nationals’ uniform since June 30, 2013 -- Suzuki nearly added to the lead in the top of the fourth. With two outs and Ryan Zimmerman on first, Suzuki lined a ball toward the right-center gap.

As Harper tracked it down and rifled it to cutoff man Jean Segura, Nationals third-base coach Bob Henley was waving Zimmerman to the plate, where he was ultimately tagged out by catcher J.T. Realmuto.

Shortstop Wilmer Difo was on deck at the time, with Sanchez in the hole. Thus, had the Nationals opted to hold Zimmerman at third, the Phillies likely would have walked Difo and pitched to Sanchez -- a career .078 (23-for-296) hitter, including 1-for-55 since 2015 -- with the bases loaded.

“They walk Difo and we’ve got Sanchez hitting,” Martinez said. “So I thought Bobby did a great job sending him right there.”

Herrera tied the game three batters into the bottom half of the inning.

Clutch hit

Despite all of that, the Nationals were still one swing away from tying -- or winning -- the game in the final frame.

Dozier lined a leadoff homer to pull the Nationals within one run and Anthony Rendon followed with a double into the left-field corner, putting the potential tying run in scoring position with the middle of the order coming up. Yet three straight outs from the middle of the order quickly ended the rally.

“Like I said, we hit balls hard,” Martinez said. “Can’t control where they go.”

That wasn’t Martinez being cliche -- the Nationals hit nine balls with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph, according to Statcast. The Phillies had just two, including Hoskins’ decisive homer.

“It’s kind of just one of those … you look up, we played good, they played good,” Dozier said. “We’re playing good baseball. When we get a few things clicking all together -- starting staff, baserunning, hitting, playing good defense, bullpen -- once you start putting everything together, I think it’ll be pretty good.”

Paul Casella is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @paul_casellaMLB.