Washington — How does a team with nothing to lose still manage to lose like this?
On Thursday night at Nationals Park, the Orioles fell, 4-2, and lost for a major league-high 52nd time in a game that was made all the more puzzling by the way they almost avoided that fate.
A returning Colby Rasmus, whose presence on the roster after an 11-week disabled list stint baffled much of the Orioles clubhouse, started one of the team's best defensive plays of the season with a double play from right field to home plate on a tag play to end the seventh inning. They’d just chased Max Scherzer, the front-runner for a third consecutive NL Cy Young Award, and had kept themselves from falling behind.
Maybe Rasmus, who homered earlier in the game, could help spark something again?
“That was the hope, but you look out there on the mound, and they've got [Kelvin] Hererra throwing 98 [mph],” Rasmus said.
“It's a tough game. Big leagues.”
After Hererra, just acquired from the Kansas City Royals in the biggest trade of the season so far, set down the Orioles in order for the second time in three games, Mychal Givens allowed a pair of runs on a double by 19-year-old Juan Soto in his second inning to put the Nationals ahead for good in the eighth inning.
The Orioles were long done scoring by then — their last of five hits came in the sixth inning — but the offense had the honor of notching the first multi-home run game off Scherzer. There was not much else to speak of.
“Obviously you're facing a good pitcher, he gives up a couple of solo home runs, that we collided with,” manager Buck Showalter said. “We couldn't really mount a whole lot of offense other than that.”
The scoring opened as improbably as anyone could have imagined. In his first at-bat after months in Florida and weeks of rehabilitation games with a hip injury that the Orioles wondered whether he'd ever come back from, Rasmus clobbered a 95-mph fastball from Scherzer to center field with one out in the second inning.
The Nationals got their run back in the third when Wilmer Difo singled, took third on a double by Pedro Severino and scored on a sacrifice fly by leadoff man Bryce Harper. But Mark Trumbo's third home run in four games, on an elevated fastball, gave the Orioles their advantage right back.
Anthony Rendon jumped on a rare mistake by Orioles starter Kevin Gausman — who allowed two runs on four hits in six innings — for a leadoff home run in the sixth inning and sent him into the dugout after six innings of two-run ball with another no-decision to show for his eighth quality start in 15 this year.
Rasmus had a second star turn of his return in the eighth inning when, with one out after Difo tripled past him in right field, the veteran outfielder caught a line drive by Daniel Murphy, crow-hopped, and threw a rope home to Caleb Joseph whose tag got in just before Difo touched home to end the inning.
It was almost fated: The man whose struggles and injury were considered factors in the team’s slow start would come back and make an immediate positive impact.
But instead, Rasmus was pinch-hit for by Craig Gentry, who made the game's final out. After leaving Givens in after an eight-pitch seventh for a second inning because so much of the bullpen was unavailable after straining itself for five innings to secure Wednesday night's win, Showalter used his stocked bench of position players to try to match left-right against closer Sean Doolittle, robbing Rasmus of his chance to extend the game and maybe keep making up for lost time.
The Orioles head to Atlanta on Friday having lost four straight series and 11 of their past 13.