SAN DIEGO - Thrust into a less-than-ideal situation tonight, Matt Grace wound up not only surviving but thriving and giving the Nationals everything they could have asked for after Max Scherzer was a late scratch.
Forced into an emergency start when Scherzer couldn’t go following a recurrence of the neck injury that knocked him out of a start earlier this month, Grace took the mound at Petco Park hoping to give whatever he had as the first in a carousel of Nats relievers who will be asked to pitch this game.
The left-hander proceeded to toss 4 1/3 scoreless innings on 52 pitches, a highly effective performance that positions the rest of the staff in decent shape to get through the remainder of the evening.
Grace retired the first six batters he faced, needing only 19 pitches to do it. He labored a bit in the third and fourth but twice escaped with a runner in scoring position.
Grace did get some help from his defense, most notably Michael A. Taylor, who made a spectacular leaping grab of Yangervis Solarte’s second-inning drive to center field that might have otherwise cleared the wall for a home run.
Howie Kendrick ensured Grace would take the mound with a lead already in hand when he belted the game’s third pitch to left-center for his seventh homer of the season, his fifth in only 56 plate appearances since his acquisition from the Phillies.
The Nationals then made it 2-0 in the top of the second when Matt Wieters, hardly known for his foot speed, hustled down the line to beat out what looked like it would be a routine double play, then scored all the way from first on shortstop Dusty Coleman’s subsequent throwing error.
Update: With six innings in the books, the Nationals have put themselves in position to win despite the difficult circumstances. They now lead 3-1, with both teams swapping runs in the bottom of the fifth and top of the sixth. After Grace was pulled with one out in the fifth, Shawn Kelley entered for his first major league appearance in two months. He struck out the first batter he faced but then served up a towering home run to Coleman. That, remarkably, was the 10th homer Kelley has surrendered in 18 2/3 innings this season. The Nats got the run right back, though, on Adam Lind’s two-out RBI single in the sixth. That made it 3-1, and it remains there after Joe Blanton tossed a scoreless inning.
Update II: The Nationals have played excellent defense tonight. The Padres ... have not. That’s a big reason why the Nats now lead 5-1 after seven innings. San Diego’s defense butchered a couple of balls in the top of the seventh, with catcher Austin Hedges throwing a ball away and center fielder Manuel Margot dropping a fairly routine fly ball. The Nationals bullpen, meanwhile, continues to get the job done. Oliver Pérez recorded the first two outs of the seventh before giving way to Matt Albers, who got the final out and is now positioned to pitch the eighth as well.
Update III: They didn’t have Scherzer. They had to cobble together nine innings from six relievers. And guess what, the Nationals still won in a rout. Final: 7-1. Grace was the most effective pitcher tonight, but because he was ineligible to earn the win after throwing fewer than five innings, the official scorer decided to give it to Blanton, who retired two of three batters he faced (even though Albers retired all four batters he faced, three via strikeout). The pitching staff collectively put up a final line that looked very Scherzer-esque: 9 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 8 K, 116 pitches, 78 strikes.