It began with the highest of hopes for the Washington Nationals, in the bottom half of the fourth inning Sunday.
The Nats were not only ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies, they’d scored the third run that has been eluding them for three previous games.
But what unfolded in that part of the Nats’ 12-6 loss to the Phillies might be the Nats’ ugliest half-inning of the season, one where the team’s most reliable reliever was betrayed by his defense and the muggy summer air, and the Nats allowed the Phillies to score seven runs — five unearned — without an extra-base hit.
“That inning, it just got away from us,” manager Davey Martinez said afterward. “With the walks, the error, the fielder’s choice with Castro. We gave up a bunch of hits — seeing eye hits — and that inning just got out of hand.”
So the Nationals led in Philadelphia, 3-0, and they’d held the Phillies hitless through the first three — on a bullpen day.
But what seems too good to be true usually is, and the game might have actually been lost in the Nats’ half of the third, when starting pitcher Austin Voth was hit in the face by a pitch and left the game with a broken nose, prematurely ending his perfect outing.
The 90-degree, humid conditions had Philadelphia starter Vince Velasquez struggling to grip the ball, a problem that would affect both teams before the game’s end.
Martinez said he was thinking of at least another inning from Voth, who had thrown only 24 pitches, when he sent his starter to the plate.
The hit-by-pitch likely pushed everyone else set to pitch up at least inning, following the frightening injury and possibly brought into play the pitchers who would pay most dearly.
The one who paid the most was Kyle Finnegan, who denied that he had short warmup time, and said it would not have been an excuse, anyway.
“Your name is going to get called, and you’re just trying to stay ready down there,” Finnegan said. “To see something like that happen, and a guy that’s going to throw multiple innings have to leave the game, you’ve got to be ready. And your name is going to get called, and it’s going to be early, and you’ve just got to be able to go out there and execute pitches.”
Wander Suero delivered an early payoff with a perfect third, and left-hander Sam Clay started the fourth by inducing a routine 4-3 groundout from Odubel Herrera. But there was enough concern after a four-pitch walk to JT Realmuto for pitching coach Jim Hickey to visit.
Then, Castro set up too far back to field Bryce Harper’s dribbler up the third-base line in time to prevent a base hit. Clay was done.
Next up was Finnegan, who had turned in a perfect inning the previous night against the Phillies after allowing just five runs in 13 appearances in the month of May.
The reliable right-hander with a team-high 24 appearances saw his first pitch to Rhys Hoskins popped into shallow left center, where Juan Soto, Jordy Mercer, and Josh Bell chased. Mercer dropped it for an error that loaded the bases.
Notable Nats-killer Andrew McCutchen then began the Philadelphia scoring with his 1,000th career hit, a bloop to center that drove in Realmuto.
McCutchen would take a curtain call for the hitting milestone after he came around to give the Phillies the lead with the fourth run of the inning.
In between, Finnegan issued a pair of six-pitch, bases-loaded walks to Brad Miller and Alec Bohm, with his sinker slipping badly through his fingers.
And so, the game was tied, with one out, and the bases remained loaded, without a ball in play so much as touched by an outfielder.
“I didn’t help myself with the walks there,” Finnegan told reporters. “I was happy with some of my stuff, I was getting soft contact, and just the bounces didn’t go my way.
“But the walks are inexcusable. I got 3-2 counts, got two strikes, and just couldn’t get that third strike, couldn’t get the ball in play with those two guys, and then when it was put in play, a little bit of tough luck there.”
That tough luck came when Ronald Torreyes delivered the second sharp grounder of the inning to Castro, playing well behind the bag. Castro either ignored or thought he had no chance to get McCutchen coming home, and rather than race Miller to third for an inning-ending force, he fired to second, where Bohm had already slid in safe. It was the second ball of the inning where Castro’s choice might have cost the Nats an out.
”He should have thrown the ball home,” said Martinez. “He didn’t, so the game just got away at that moment.”
Castro didn’t mention that option in his postgame breakdown.
“I know I don’t got no chance to go to third,“ Castro explained. “And if I throw to first, I think it’s going to be a bang-bang play, and after I caught the ball I just said to myself, ‘Let’s go to the short way,’ so I thought I was going to get an out at second.”
A three-pitch strikeout of Matt Joyce might have shown that Finnegan had his sinker under control, but strike three got away from catcher Alex Avila, plating Miller with the fifth run of the inning, now with two out.
It wasn’t over for Finnegan or the Nats.
Herrera got a much better look at the ball in his second at-bat of the inning than he did in his first, lacing a belt-high sinker into left to clear the bases and make it 7-3.
Exhausted, Finnegan was finished, but Paulo Espino offered no immediate help, issuing Realmuto his second walk of the inning, on four pitches.
It ended, coincidentally, on Harper’s second grounder of the inning to Castro, giving him his third chance of the frame. This time, the third baseman was not only in position to field the ball, but he immediately made the most obvious and smartest baseball play he could have made — tagging the bag at third.
“It’s really frustrating,“ said Castro. “They scored a lot of runs, and they might have had two hits that inning, and then not even hard hit balls or anything.”
Damage from the inning: Philadelphia sent 12 men to the plate and scored seven runs, four unearned, on three hits, four walks, and defensive lapses that included an error, a botched fielder’s choice, and a strike-three wild pitch.
The team had wasted a decent offensive outing by letting the Phillies score more runs in one inning than the Nats would score in the entire game.
Individual stat lines blew up, too.
Clay’s total of two earned runs on one hit and one walk in one-third of an inning ballooned his ERA from 4.24 to 5.19.
In one-third of an inning, Finnegan was charged with five runs — only one earned — on two hits and one walk. Because he got only one out, his ERA jumped from 3.80 to 4.13.
The Nats played like a last-place team in the inning, and the game, and that’s where they wound up.
Thanks to the loss and a Miami win over Pittsburgh, they‘re back at the bottom of the National League East.