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June 12, 2016

Morgan rebounds, but Werth gives Washington walk-off win

After Adam Morgan walked three batters in the first inning, and served up a solo home run to begin the second, the Twitter pitchforks were out in full force. There was even an eye roll and a head shake from a member of the press corps.

Because if the 2016 Phillies season is about any one thing, it isn’t about giving young players an extended look. Instead it’s about giving them a quick hook.

Except, of course, it’s about the exact opposite of that.

Morgan, who still hasn’t pitched in the big leagues for a full calendar year, retired 16 of the 19 batters he faced after serving up the home run. Morgan, who has allowed three earned runs or fewer in six of nine starts this year (and in 16 of his 24 starts since arriving to the Phillies late last June), settled down, reached a career high in strikeouts, and gave the Phillies a chance to end a four-game losing streak against a team that entered the day tied for the second-best record in baseball.

"I just (had to) bear down," Morgan said, "I knew I wasn't going to quit."

He gave them a chance, eventually, to win a game against their former disgruntled teammate and current easy-target nemesis. Two innings after Morgan departed, Maikel Franco, the first batter of the ninth, ripped the fifth pitch he saw from Jonathan Papelbon over the left field wall at Nationals Park as the Phillies overcame a three-run deficit.

But another ex-Phillie, Jayson Werth, had the last laugh. With the bases loaded and two outs, Werth ripped a two-run single off closer Jeanmar Gomez back through the middle to give Washington a 5-4 walk-off victory.

It was the second straight appearance for Gomez when he had to escape a bases-loaded jam. On Tuesday against the Chicago Cubs, he entered the impossible spot – with the based loaded and no one out in the eighth – and escaped unharmed to get a six-out save started.

On Sunday, he didn't have a great feel for his slider and challenged Werth with a 95-MPH sinking fastball that didn't sink.

"I have to attack the hitter and execute my pitch," said Gomez, who is 19-for-21 in save opportunities this season. "At that moment, I threw a fastball that I wanted to be down and away, but it was up."

The Phillies have lost five straight games and 13 of their last 16 games. After enjoying a sweep in Washington two months ago, the Phils have seen the Nationals pay them back with back-to-back three-game sweeps in the six games the two National League East foes have played since.

"That was a very tough loss to take," manager Pete Mackanin said. "The guys came back. ... It’s too bad we wasted such a good pitching performance by (Morgan) and (David) Hernandez."

Although Gomez was erratic throughout the ninth inning, the inning began with pinch-hitter Bryce Harper legging out a ball hit into the hole behind first base. Cesar Hernandez corralled the tough grounder, spun and made the throw to first, but it took first baseman Tommy Joseph off the bag.

A walk and two hits later, the first-place Nationals pulled off their sixth win in their last seven games. 

"Cesar I’m sure feels worse than anyone here," Mackanin said. "It’s a shame, but we can’t afford to make mistakes. We’ve got to play clean games to win."

Before the bottom-of-the-ninth drama, Phillies fans had to at least revel in what preceded it.

The go-ahead home run in the top of the ninth was Franco’s team-leading 11th of the season. The home run was the third Papelbon has allowed in nine games against his former team since he was traded to the Nationals three days before last summer’s trade deadline.

Papelbon has allowed eight home runs in the last two seasons and the Phillies, who he pitched for during four months of the 2015 season, have accounted for three of those home runs. Papelbon, who signed the richest contract for a reliever in baseball history but spent the majority of his time in Philadelphia complaining and begging to be traded, has a 7.27 ERA (seven earned runs in 8 2/3 innings) in nine appearances against his old team since the trade.

The Phillies mounted their comeback four innings before the Phillies all-time saves leader entered the game, though. And it started just as it ended, with a home run.

Cody Asche ended Joe Ross’s run of 4 2/3 shutout innings by lining an opposite-field solo job, his first of the season, into the first row of the left-field bleachers, just inside the foul pole. An inning later, in the sixth, Morgan led off with a double, Odubel Herrera followed with one of his own, and Freddy Galvis tied the game and made it three straight hits to open the inning with a run-scoring single.

Morgan returned to the mound in the bottom half of the sixth and continued his sudden mastery of the Nats bats: he struck out two of the three batters he faced. It was the fourth straight inning Morgan had faced the minimum. When he struck out the first batter of the seventh inning, for his season-high eighth strikeout, Morgan capped a run that saw him punch out seven of the last nine batters he had faced.

"My main thing was that we scored runs that inning, so I wanted to go and throw a shutout inning because that's how you gain confidence," Morgan said.

Sure, Morgan struggled mightily in the game’s first inning and when he has been bad this year, he’s been very bad. But the most important takeaway from Sunday’s game wasn’t that they beat Papelbon again, or that their makeshift closer blew a save, but it was the way Morgan, a 26-year-old former prospect who nearly saw his big league dreams dashed with two years of shoulder issues, including surgery, gamely dug his spikes into the mound and didn’t allow one ugly inning to throw him into a game-long fit.

"It gives you an indication of what he’s made out of," Mackanin said. "He could have buckled under after that. And he didn’t. He looked like he was determined to get it together and he did."

No one is saying Adam Morgan will be the next Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee (or even the next J.A. Happ or Randy Wolf), but he should at least be allowed an opportunity to give the front office’s decision makers the time to figure out what he can be in a sample size longer than nine games (especially when more than half of them have been completely serviceable).

With Zach Eflin on his way from Triple-A and Vince Velasquez on the disabled list (with no rehab plan as of yet), Morgan will continue to get opportunities in big league games. Just as he should in a rebuilding year that’s all about letting young players grow.

"Morgan started off and looked so bad I thought we were in the bullpen early and he settled down," Mackanin said. "That’s the best I’ve seen him pitch in two years after that first inning."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21