WASHINGTON -- Left-handed rookie starter Tyler Matzek spent 95 pitches Wednesday night giving the Rockies a competitive 6 1/3 innings, only to see it all erased two pitches later.
In a year when an injury-depleted starting rotation has rarely given good starts, another Rockies problem has been formerly dependable relievers struggling. This time, Matt Belisle watched Ian Desmond swat his second pitch to right-center for a home run that gave the Nationals a 4-3 victory at Nationals Park in front of 28,943, and a three-game series sweep.
The Rockies completed the road trip 1-6, and they've lost 14 of their last 16. Wednesday's result threw a worrisome pattern in the face of good news.
Some of their better injured players are on the way back. Third baseman Nolan Arenado should return Thursday against the Dodgers to start a 10-game homestand, lefty Boone Logan is on the edge of being activated and star left fielder Carlos Gonzalez is close to a rehab assignment, but those returns will be no remedy for the plague of the ill-fated pitch late in the game.
Belisle has been with the Rockies since 2009 and has pitched often, but on occasion over the last two seasons he has struggled with consistency and the ability to deliver at the key times. Belisle, lefty Rex Brothers (3-4, 4.37 ERA) and righty Adam Ottavino (0-3, 4.34), all expected to be stalwarts, have had trouble holding leads or keeping runs off the board.
"It was just a mistake, sloppy slider to a hitter who is going really well this series," Belisle said. "That one's on me. I've got no excuse.
"Execution is all it is, especially late in tight ballgames like that. That game's got to be won or got to be held, or you've got to be beat by your best stuff."
Matzek turned in his second straight encouraging start and third good one in five outings since being called up from Triple-A Colorado Springs.
He was staked to a 3-0 lead on Michael McKenry's first homer of the season, a three-run shot in the second off Doug Fister. Matzek shook off early command struggles and finished with six strikeouts against six hits and one walk.
"I felt good, and 'Mac' [McKenry] came in and reminded me of arm speed," Matzek said. "He could see something where I wasn't as aggressive with the off-speed pitches and the arm speed, and the hitters were able to pick that up."
In the fourth, Jayson Werth cut the Rockies' lead to 3-2 with a two-run shot for his seventh homer of the year, on a 3-1 pitch that Matzek called "a stupid pitch." With two down in the frame, Matzek yielded two soft hits -- a bloop double by Bryce Harper and a soft Desmond RBI single for a 3-3 tie.
Matzek retired the next eight. He fanned Harper to open the seventh before manager Walt Weiss went to Belisle.
"He [Matzek] was about at his ceiling for the year, a real hot night," Weiss said.
Matzek said, "I felt good, could've gone more, but it was the right call. Get the righty in there with a right-hander up late in the game."
Belisle enticed Desmond to chase a high fastball, but his slider backed over the plate and ended up Desmond's 15th homer.
Desmond's hit seemingly bounced off the top of the padded wall and was played as a triple. However, instant replay awarded the homer because the ball touched the railing above the wall.
Fister held the Rockies to three runs on seven hits in seven innings.
"Doug felt really strong, which is an indication for him that the ball gets up in the zone a little bit," Nationals manager Matt Williams said. "They made some nice plays behind him. The three-run homer from McKenry early put us in a hole. But he battled through."
The Rockies played crisply defensively.
Second baseman DJ LeMahieu made a grab and glove flip of an Anthony Rendon grounder and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki pulled off a spinning throw for a first-inning double play. Tulowitzki dazzled on Jose Lobaton's grounder in the hole in the third and made a spinning throw to stop Rendon in the eighth. Desmond's homer was the Nats' only hit after the fourth.
The Rockies think that a second-half run is in them. But to realize that dream, Belisle said the game-turning mistake like his on Wednesday must be eliminated.
"There's just no one thing that can be omitted if you expect to win," Belisle said. "We don't cower from that and we know there's going to be faults by each part of the Rockies' game at some time. But who's ready to come the next day and get after it?"