SAN DIEGO - The task - getting nine innings out of a menagerie of relievers after Max Scherzer had to be scratched from Friday night’s start - was daunting enough. Dusty Baker simply hoped he could get through this game without burning up his entire pitching staff, let alone actually beat the Padres.
But when emergency starter Matt Grace was able to go 4 1/3 innings without surrendering a run, a task that felt awfully daunting at the beginning of the night suddenly felt doable.
And thanks to the work of five more relievers who collectively allowed just one run, the Nationals somehow emerged from Petco Park with a 7-1 victory and enough fresh arms to give their manager peace of mind heading into the rest of the weekend.
“They did a great job,” Baker said. “Things just sort of worked out.”
That they did, thanks in large part to Grace’s superb effort in a difficult assignment. Notified about 2 1/2 hours before first pitch that he would be replacing Scherzer as the Nationals starter, the left-hander kept going about his business in normal fashion and wound up throwing more innings than he ever had in a big league game.
Baker was hoping to get three decent frames out of Grace, who had never gone more than 2 2/3 innings in his career and hadn’t thrown more than 53 pitches in any one outing. But when the 28-year-old retired San Diego’s first six batters on 19 pitches, the plan for the evening changed.
“I wanted to make sure I was locked in, because I needed to go as long as I could in that situation,” he said. “There was no room for throwing more pitches than I should’ve been. So I tried to be as locked-in as early as possible, and tried to attack as early as possible to extend my outing a little bit.”
Grace completed the third inning with his pitch count at 33, so Baker sent him back out for the fourth. Despite getting into a jam, he induced a big double play out of Yangervis Solarte and then watched as rookie right fielder Andrew Stevenson made a lunging catch of Wil Myers’ sinking liner to end the inning, with his pitch count now at 49.
With the left-handed Cory Spangenberg leading off the fifth, Baker again sent Grace back to the mound to face one more batter, and the emergency starter responded with another groundball out before he finally handed the ball to his manager.
“I was trying to just take it an inning at a time, pretty much,” Grace said. “I knew I could give three, for sure. I think any inning after that was a plus, so that was kind of my mindset going into this.”
With 13 of the game’s 27 outs now recorded, the Nationals knew they still have seven available relievers to finish the job.
“That was huge for us,” said Matt Albers, who recorded four outs in succession in the seventh and eighth innings. “We were kind of expecting him to go three. And for him to go four, and into the fifth, was pretty awesome. Once he did that, we knew we had enough guys down there to piece the rest of it together.”
Baker wound up turning to Shawn Kelley to finish the fifth (the veteran right-hander, in his first appearance after a two-month DL stint, gave up a solo homer but recorded a strikeout and a popout). Joe Blanton then tossed a scoreless sixth thanks to a double-play grounder (he wound up credited with the win by the official scorer, who was not allowed to give it to Grace because he didn’t complete the mandatory five innings). Oliver Pérez got two outs in the seventh before handing it over to Albers. Sammy Solís then pitched the ninth to close out the victory and allow top relievers Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle to be saved for another day.
“Gracie saved my bullpen, to where I could just go one inning or a fraction of an inning,” Baker said. “That worked out perfectly. And we still have a couple fresh guys that we didn’t use. Hopefully everybody should be available tomorrow as well.”
In the end, the six pitchers the Nationals sent to the mound produced the following line: nine innings, four hits, one run, three walks, eight strikeouts, 116 pitches, 78 strikes.
In other words, the equivalent of a Scherzer complete-game gem.
“That’s a pretty cool win to be a part of right there,” Grace said.