PHILADELPHIA - Four games into his team’s season, Dusty Baker hasn’t had a whole lot of opportunity to relax and enjoy managing a first place club. His Nationals may be 3-1, but all four games have been tense, down-to-the-wire affairs, perhaps none more than today’s contest at Citizens Bank Park.
It didn’t have to be that way. The Nats led by seven runs after five innings and were well on their way to giving Baker some well-deserved R&R.
And then ... well, that seven-run lead somehow turned into a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth after the same bullpen that blew Thursday night’s game against the Marlins came within a gnat’s eyelash of doing it against the Phillies.
Sammy Solis gave up an RBI double to Freddy Galvis and a two-run homer to Aaron Altherr. Enny Romero didn’t retire either batter he faced. Koda Glover cleaned up Romero’s mess in the only effective relief performance of the day. And then Blake Treinen, who has now appeared in every one of his team’s games, served up a two-run homer to Galvis and then let the winning run come to the plate before escaping his self-made jam and somehow preserving a 7-6 victory.
“That would’ve been heartbreaking and devastating had we lost that game,” Baker said. “But we won it. And you’ve seen some weird stuff happen in this ballpark. You’re never really safe with a lead here, cause the fences are so accessible. I’m just glad we won the game.”
The Nationals did so many things right to put themselves in position to win it, getting a dominant season debut from Max Scherzer and three big home runs from Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy and Jayson Werth.
Scherzer was brilliant from the outset, retiring the first 10 batters he faced and carrying a shutout into the sixth inning, all this in spite of the fact he only made three exhibition starts this spring after recovering from a fracture in his right ring finger.
“He’s a huge competitor,” Werth said. “He takes it serious. On game day, he reminds me a lot of Roy Halladay. Same type of thing he’s got going on. He’s really good, on top of it. He’s one of the better guys I’ve played behind.”
Scherzer had his way with a Phillies lineup he has dominated more than a few times before. This was his 10th start against Philadelphia since he joined the Nationals in 2015. His record: 7-0 with a 2.49 ERA. His record in six starts in this hitter-friendly ballpark: 5-0 with a 2.06 ERA.
As sharp as he looked most of the afternoon, though, Scherzer still is working to build up his stamina. So it wasn’t terribly surprising when he gave up a run in the sixth, then when he uncharacteristically walked two straight batters on eight pitches to open the seventh.
“That’s just going to eat at you, that seventh inning,” he said. “I know we have a big lead, but when you know you’re at the end of the line, that’s when you’ve got to finish your starts. You can’t go out there and throw ball four, ball eight.”
Was fatigue a problem for a guy who was approaching a triple-digit pitch count for the first time in 2017?
“No. That’s what was so weird: I was strong,” the right-hander said. “Actually, when you pitch in cold weather games, it’s hard to use a lot of your reserves. So I was very strong, considering that this was my first outing at 100 pitches. I felt great there in the seventh.”
Scherzer should be over the hump now, but his manager isn’t quite ready to declare that yet, which is why Baker came out to take the ball from his ace with two outs in the seventh.
” ‘Cause usually Max would’ve closed out that inning,” Baker said. “That just shows he’s not quite all the way back shape-wise. ‘Cause you don’t usually go and get Max in that situation. But when you walk two guys on eight pitches, and they’re all wild and high ... he’s almost right.”
The final 2 1/3 innings should’ve been a piece of cake for the Nationals bullpen, with a six-run lead in hand at that point. But Solis entered and immediately let an inherited runner score on Galvis’ double and then two more cross the plate on Altherr’s homer.
After tossing a 1-2-3 inning on opening day, Solis has now struggled the last two days, retiring only two of the six batters he has faced.
“Spring training is to get us ready for the season. We’re prepared and we’re ready,” he said. “Obviously the last couple of games have been ugly as far as the bullpen goes, but Max put us in the position to win. We got it. It took a lot of work, but we’ll be ready tomorrow.”
Who will Baker summon for Saturday’s game, with 38-year-old Jeremy Guthrie making the start and unlikely to give them more than five innings even if he pitches well?
“We’ll figure it out,” the manager said. “We’re just kind of still in the process of figuring out where to slot guys in that part of the game.”
So, no red flags about the bullpen yet?
“No, not really,” Baker said. “How are you gonna toss a red flag when you’ve played (four) games? Nah, I don’t toss red flags. We just try to figure out a way and figure out how to fix the guys.”