WASHINGTON — It took Tyler Matzek nearly five years to set foot in the major leagues. The Rockies' top draft pick in 2009 clawed and wobbled his way in. He did the same Wednesday night at Nationals Park, wriggling into form over six solid innings.
But perhaps he left too quickly.
Matzek, in his best game as a big-leaguer away from Colorado, trotted out for the seventh inning in a 3-3 game. And right away, he struck out Nationals slugger Bryce Harper.
But Matzek's 95 pitches were enough. And Rockies manager Walt Weiss reeled him back to the dugout, going to the bullpen.
Two pitches later, Washington's Ian Desmond hit a home run off Rockies reliever Matt Belisle and the Nationals won again, 4-3, sweeping a series from Colorado in the Rockies' 14th loss in the past 16 games.
"It's just a mistaken, sloppy slider to a hitter who was going really well this series," Belisle said. "That's it. That one's on me. I've got no excuse once again. Execution is all it is — especially late in tie ballgames like that."
The Rockies retired 13 of the last 14 Nationals hitters, including eight in a row by Matzek. The one hit accounted for the winning run.
"That game's got to be won, or at least held, or you at least have to be beat by your best stuff," said Belisle, who threw a strike to Desmond before backing up a slider out over the plate for the homer.
"And that was a poorly executed pitch. I don't know what to say other than I'm accountable for that."
The Rockies remained 1½ games away from the cellar in the National League West, in fourth place just ahead of Arizona.
The Rockies return to Colorado on Thursday to start a four-game series against the division-leading Los Angeles Dodgers — including Friday against L.A. ace Clayton Kershaw. At 36-49, they are the third-worst team in baseball.
Over a seven-game road trip to Milwaukee and Washington, the Rockies went 1-6, losing every which way. But on Wednesday, the Rockies looked like the April Rockies, the team that was still in first place May 7.
While Colorado won't confuse Matzek for the next Kershaw, the Rockies will gladly take the next Jeff Francis.
Against Washington, Matzek fit that mold, going to his fourth and rarely used pitch, a changeup, to fiddle with hitters. He gave up just six hits and three runs over 6 ⅓ innings. And he struck out six and allowed just one walk.
"Guys were seeing the slider pretty well, laying off it. So I had to use something else," Matzek said.
Matzek's 95 pitches, however, were a season high.
"I felt fine. I could have gone more. But the situation was the right call. We needed a right-hander in there. It was the right call for sure," Matzek said.
Matzek started without his best stuff — four of the Nats' seven hits came in the fourth inning, when they scored three runs. But Matzek progressed into form, Colorado catcher Michael McKenry said.
"He did a good job mixing and matching as the game went along," McKenry said. It ended with Matzek's five-pitch strikeout of Harper before he was pulled.
"I think he got stronger as the game went along," McKenry said. "But he was in uncharted territory. He's a young guy who probably hasn't thrown much more than 90-95 pitches in a game."
Weiss said he yanked Matzek because he reached his physical limit.
"He was about at his ceiling on a real hot night," Weiss said.
McKenry's first home run this season, a line drive to left-center off Doug Fister in the second inning, drove in Troy Tulowitzki and Corey Dickerson, who both singled. It gave the Rockies a 3-0 lead — their first advantage since Tuesday.
And the Rockies, a day before the return of Gold Glove-winning third baseman Nolan Arenado from injury, turned an impressive double play in the first. DJ LeMahieu dived to backhand an Anthony Rendon hit behind second base, then flipped behind his back to Tulowitzki, who bare-handed the ball, spun 360 degrees and threw just in time to first baseman Justin Morneau.
The Nationals bounced back in the fourth when Jayson Werth hit a two-run homer barely over the center field wall. And after Harper doubled, Desmond singled to score him, tying the game.
It was Washington's only real outburst outside of one swing in the seventh.
"You just try to put guys in position to succeed. That's my job," Weiss said. "You don't get to see the outcome before you make a decision. So you go with what you think is your best shot at the time."
Nick Groke: email@example.com or twitter.com/nickgroke