Nationals, Phillies show NL East will be a wild ride

WASHINGTON -- The Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals took National Walking Day to the extreme.

In the wild finale of a two-game series between National League East rivals, Washington beat Philadelphia 9-8 as Nats pinch-hitter Jake Noll drew a walk-off walk against Phillies closer David Robertson, who had walked the previous two batters to load the bases. An inning earlier, in the top of the eighth, Nationals reliever Trevor Rosenthal issued a pair of walks, helping fuel a three-run rally that gave the Phillies a 7-6 lead.

On the day, which marked the 13th annual celebration of National Walking Day, the teams combined for 14 free passes. Three of those belonged to Bryce Harper, who followed up his huge homecoming on Tuesday (3-for-5, HR, 3 RBIs) with a perfect day at the plate on Wednesday. In five trips, the Phillies slugger was 2-for-2 with three walks, including a pair of intentional passes. Harper has reached safely in eight consecutive plate appearances.

"It's impressive," said Aaron Nola, the 2018 NL Cy Young finalist who allowed six runs in three innings in an outing that was tied for the shortest of his career. "It really is -- coming into his old ballpark and doing what he did. The hitters in general have been off the charts. They cleaned up the mess that I made today."

Despite Nola's mess, it looked as though Harper and the Phillies were on their way to a sweep thanks to another meltdown from Washington's beleaguered bullpen. With one out and one on in the top of the eighth and the Nats leading 6-4, setup man Rosenthal came on in relief of left-hander Tony Sipp. Rosenthal, the former Cardinals closer who missed all of 2018 following Tommy John surgery, walked the only two batters he faced, continuing what has been a nightmare start to his season.

In three outings, covering seven batters, the veteran right-hander has failed to record an out (four hits, three walks). According to ESPN Stats & Information research, he's just the second pitcher in the live ball era who has failed to retire a batter in each of his first three appearances of a season (Rich Hill did it in 2014). Including his final outing of 2017, when he faced two hitters and allowed a hit and a walk, Rosenthal is the first pitcher in MLB history to allow at least one run without recording an out in four consecutive appearances, according to the Elias Sports Bureau research.

"Obviously it's frustrating," said Rosenthal, who was an All-Star with St. Louis in 2015, when he notched 48 saves. "I don't want to put other guys in tough spots. But we were able to come back and win the game, so that's been a relief for sure."

"He's a high-energy guy," manager Davey Martinez said of Rosenthal. "We gotta figure out a way to calm him down a little bit. Every time I go get the ball, he doesn't want to come out. He wants to keep going and keep going. But I'm not going to give up on him. That's for sure. We need him. If we're going to do this, we need Rosenthal."

Rosenthal isn't the only bullpen arm that Martinez needs to improve. Not with a group that has worked to a 6.60 ERA over the team's first five games and has played a key role in all three Nationals losses. Although Rosenthal's ERA still stands at infinity, fellow relievers Sipp (16.20) and Matt Grace (11.57) aren't much better. Even closer Sean Doolittle, an All-Star last season and the one supposed sure thing in the Nats' pen, hasn't been his usual dominant self in the early going. In his only appearance so far, on Sunday against the Mets, Doolittle yielded three hits and allowed two inherited runners to score, which tied the game before Trea Turner untied it with a walk-off homer.

On Wednesday against the Phillies, Washington needed another dose of late-inning magic to reverse another bullpen blowup.

With two outs in the bottom of the eighth and Yan Gomes on second base after an RBI double that trimmed Philly's lead to 8-7, Nats leadoff man Adam Eaton hit what looked like an easy inning-ending tapper back to the mound. But first baseman Rhys Hoskins botched the soft toss from reliever Seranthony Dominguez, allowing the ball to sail past him and permitting Gomes to score the tying run.

"I just clanked it," said Hoskins, who played out of position in left field last year but has since moved back to his natural habitat at first following the addition of free-agent left fielder Andrew McCutchen. The signing of McCutchen, along with the addition of Harper, catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Jean Segura, gives the Phillies one of the deepest lineups in baseball. But in a stacked NL East, Hoskins is well aware that his team isn't the only one that can swing the bat. "There's some good lineups in this division. I think if we play the caliber of defense that we've showcased the first four of five games, that game is over."

Instead, Wednesday's game wasn't over. Until Robertson did his own impromptu celebration of National Walking Day out there on the mound.

"I'm pitching like crap," said the Phillies closer, who has allowed at least one hit, one walk and one run in all three of his outings this season. "It sucks. I'm very frustrated with myself."

As for Noll, the rookie pinch-hitter who drew the walk-off walk and helped salvaged the series for Washington, his emotions couldn't have been more different than Robertson's.

"It was awesome," said the 25-year old infielder, who was a surprise member of the active roster coming out of his first major-league spring training. "First time I got on base as a big leaguer. Great way to do it."

Even though Noll was sent down to the minors immediately after the game to pave the way for veteran Howie Kendrick's return from injury, he walked away with a memento.

"I got a ball in my locker," said Noll, whose heroics gave the sputtering Nationals -- who lost Turner to a broken finger in Tuesday's defeat -- a 2-3 record that looks and sounds a whole lot better than 1-4. As for the Phillies, they suffered their first loss of the season and fell to 4-1, the same record as the Mets had entering the day's action. Elsewhere in the NL East, the Braves won't continue to win one of four, as they did coming out of the game. And then there are the Marlins, who, small sample size be damned, have looked better than everyone expected.

But back to Noll and his souvenir: "I couldn't really tell you where the ball came from. But I got a ball."

Truth is, there were plenty of balls to go around on Wednesday. Four per walk, to be exact.

Speaking of walks, if there was one takeaway from this early April roller-coaster ride of a game, it's this: For whoever wins the NL East, it sure as hell isn't going to be a cakewalk.