GAME IN A NUTSHELL: The Nationals have been on a tear at the plate in recent weeks, beating some decent pitchers along the way. But they hadn't faced anyone quite like Johnny Cueto, who showed today why he has been among the NL's most-dominant starters this season.
Cueto tossed seven scoreless innings, striking out nine and escaping a couple of jams, to lower his ERA to a miniscule 2.08. The Reds right-hander was aided by some questionable baserunning on the Nationals' part, most notably by Bryce Harper, but he also left this previously red-hot lineup flailing at his vast assortment of pitches.
Gio Gonzalez tried his best to outduel Cueto, and the left-hander nearly pulled it off in one of his better starts of the season. But the Reds got to Gonzalez for one run in the fifth inning, and that proved to be enough on this afternoon.
Thus the Nationals lost for only the third time in their last 10 games, while the Reds earned their first win since before the All-Star break. They'll have to wait and see if the Braves can beat the Padres later this evening and make up ground in the NL East.
HITTING LOWLIGHT: When you're facing one of the best pitchers in the league, you know you've got to make the most of the few opportunities you get. The Nationals didn't do that today against Cueto. Despite putting the leadoff man on base in four of the game's first five innings, they never so much as advanced him to third base. That was in part due to a few hitters not delivering in those spots. But bad baserunning played a major role as well. Harper twice ran himself into outs on the bases, killing potential rallies. He strayed too far (and then failed to hustle back) on Wilson Ramos' lineout to deep right-center in the second inning. Then he foolishly tried to go first-to-third on Ramos' infield single in the seventh. In a low-scoring ballgame against an especially tough pitcher, Harper simply can't let that happen twice.
PITCHING HIGHLIGHT: On the heels of a laborious start against the Brewers in which he needed 88 pitches just to complete 3 1/3 innings, Gonzalez did a complete 180 this afternoon. He worked fast. He threw strikes. He picked off a couple of runners. And he was particularly efficient, getting through seven innings of 1-run ball on only 95 pitches. The only blemish on his afternoon: a fifth-inning double by Chris Heisey and an RBI single by Brayan Pena. Otherwise, Gonzalez matched Cueto pitch-for-pitch and did everything in his power to give the Nationals a chance to win.
KEY STAT: The Nationals' lineup had produced at least 11 hits in each of the last eight games before today.
UP NEXT: The series wraps up Sunday afternoon when Doug Fister faces Mat Latos at Great American Ball Park. First pitch is scheduled for 1:10 p.m.