The Nationals entered today’s series finale against the Brewers with a suddenly resurgent lineup and a piecemeal pitching plan that needed to come together if they wanted to pull off their first three-game sweep of the season.
Who would’ve thought the pitching part of the equation would be the least of their concerns?
While Paolo Espino, Evan Lee and two relievers teamed up to hold Milwaukee in check, the Nats lineup went silent during a 4-1 loss to spoil any hopes of a weekend sweep on South Capitol Street.
Espino and Lee combined for the equivalent of a “quality start,” allowing three runs over six innings without issuing a walk. But their teammates couldn’t produce enough at the plate, despite several early opportunities with runners in scoring position, and thus couldn’t duplicate the power display they put on the previous two nights, when they launched seven total homers in back-to-back wins.
"Our pitching was good," manager Davey Martinez said. "We just didn't come up with that big hit. Twice had bases loaded, only scored one run. We just couldn't get that big hit today."
Indeed, the Nationals gave themselves chances early against Brewers starter Jason Alexander. They put two runners on base in the first, advanced a runner to third in the second, then loaded the bases in the third and fifth. But out of all that, they managed to push across only one run, via Josh Bell’s sacrifice fly.
They never did deliver a hit with a runner in scoring position, going 0-for-6 against Alexander, who proved master of his domain in the third start of his big league career.
There was even less opportunity to come through late against a Brewers bullpen that shut the Nats out over the final 4 1/3 innings.
"It didn't happen today," Martinez said. "Some days are like that. We got just one run out of two bases loaded (situations). The last few days, it's been ongoing where we scored multiple runs. It's just one of those days."
In deciding who would start today’s game, Martinez had a choice of either rookie left-hander Lee or veteran right-hander Espino. Neither was built up enough to make a full start, and chances are one would end up following the other out of the bullpen. In the end, the manager went with the experienced Espino, who entered with a sparkling 2.03 ERA in 20 relief appearances but had yet to pitch this season with his team either leading or trailing by fewer than three runs.
Espino, as ever, gave the Nats everything he had. He allowed one run over 3 2/3 innings, beaten by a pair of third-inning doubles from Tyrone Taylor and Willy Adames, but otherwise did just as he typically does and recorded outs with minimal damage suffered.
Under different circumstances, Espino would’ve kept going after retiring the first two batters he faced in the top of the fourth. But with his pitch count up to 53 – a total he had not reached since mid-April – he was pulled in favor of Lee, summoned out of the bullpen by Martinez to face the left-handed Omar Narváez.
"I was feeling OK, but I understand I haven't been out there for more than three (innings) and I don't think I had thrown more than 50 pitches the entire season in one appearance," Espino said. "They were going the safe route. It's a decision they probably thought about before. I'm happy with the decision. I just go out there and do the best I can do, as long as I can."
Lee would pitch well in his third big league game, recording seven outs on 41 pitches. He was done in, though, by one two-out sequence in the top of the fifth against the top of the Milwaukee lineup. After allowing a single to Christian Yelich, Lee faced Adames but seemed to be distracted at times by Yelich leading off first base.
Lee would throw six pitches in the at-bat to Adames, but sprinkling in between were four pickoff throws. Whether Yelich’s presence on the bases caused him to leave a 2-2 fastball over the plate to Adames is debatable, but the result of the pitch was a two-run homer nonetheless.
"I was instructed to pick off, hold the running game a little bit," Lee said. "He tried to attempt a steal, so we knew he was going to try to get into scoring position with two outs. I was just trying to hold over there. I've got to do a better job of executing my pitch, especially in that count with a fastball."
The young lefty picked himself up after the homer, though, and retired the final four batters he faced to leave on a positive note, brushing off a comebacker that struck him just below the right knee and left a noticeable welt afterward.
"I didn't like the results that I was getting out there," Lee said. "I didn't have my best stuff. I wasn't very polished, by any means. So when (the comebacker) happens, it fuels me, it gets me pissed off. I could care less about the pain. I just wanted to push on in the game and help our team get deeper in the ballgame. That was the job I was tasked to do before the game, and by golly I was going to get it done."
Even if his teammates couldn’t pick him or the rest of the Nationals pitching staff up today.