The Matt Grace experiment as an opener could not have gone much better.
The Nationals found a way to get to Clayton Kershaw early on.
All looked good for the Nats after they jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning Saturday afternoon before 39,616 at Nats Park.
Grace ended up pitching in two innings. But once he left, right-hander Joe Ross allowed seven runs as the potent and unrelenting Dodgers lineup demonstrated they can take over games.
Will Smith went 3-for-3 with a homer, two doubles and a sacrifice fly for a career-high six RBIs. Corey Seager drilled an RBI double and Max Muncy laced a run-scoring single as the Dodgers came back to roll the Nats 9-3.
Nationals manager Davey Martinez said the strategy of starting Grace worked as well as he had hoped. But the rest of the game did not.
"The first part of the plan was really good," Martinez said. "I wish I could've sent Gracie out a couple more innings. He did his job. He was really, really good. Joe came in the game and gave up a home run early. Thought he might settle down. We gave up way too many two-out runs today."
Against a team of the caliber of the Dodgers, the Nationals two greatest weaknesses were exposed in one game: the lack of a true fifth starter and an inconsistent bullpen.
The Nationals have suddenly lost three in a row. It's the first time Washington has lost three or more in a row since the four-game sweep at the hands of the Mets May 20-23.
Grace did his part in the Nationals' first-ever use of an opener, setting the Dodgers down in order 1-2-3 in each of his two innings. He struck out three without allowing a hit or a run. The southpaw veteran did a nice job of mixing his slider and sinker, generating a pair of called third strikes against Muncy and Seager.
"I try not to change anything honestly," Grace said. "I didn't do anything before the game or do anything different, I just tried to treat it like I was coming in as a relief appearance really."
Martinez said the plan had been hatched early last week. Grace said he had enough time to get ready after the skipper told him he could be the opener.
"It had been in discussion the last couple days just based on how the last couple games were going to unfold," Grace said. "If I was used or not. So, it was on the table, I think they told me like three days ago but it wasn't official until last night."
Ross (0-3) was hittable and struggled, allowing seven runs (six earned) on nine hits over 4 2/3 innings. He allowed four extra-base hits.
"Just leaving the ball up in the zone," Ross said of his mistake pitches. "I felt good physically but just leaving the ball over the plate, up in the zone, and they made me pay for it. Up in the zone is not where you want to be, especially with these guys."
If Grace was so good, and Ross struggled, why not keep Grace in for more than two innings?
"I said before the day it was what he could do for us," Martinez said. "I talked to him after he came out in the second inning and told him, I said, 'You need to be totally honest with me right now.' He said he was done. I said, 'Perfect, you did a great job.'"
Grace said maybe he could have continued, but admitted he was spent. The left-hander has made five appearances since July 17 leading up to Saturday, including two innings against the Rockies three days ago.
"I ... probably could have gone more, but feeling it a little bit, so," Grace said.
Martinez believes Ross needs to decide which fastball will be his go-to pitch: The four-seam or the two-seam. That decision might be derailing his effectiveness.
"I really think, for Joe, (he needs) to identify whether he wants to be a two-seamer or a four-seam guy," Martinez said. "I think he tried to be both today and we have to figure out what's going to be best for him. He threw some pretty good pitches at times and then sometimes left them elevated. So, we just got to go back and figure it out."
Ross still likes to throw both pitches. He said it comes down to which batter steps in: a left-handed or right-handed hitter.
"I guess it depends on the batter," Ross said. "A lot of lefties in (their) lineup. I would say more four-seams than two-seams with them cause they're just more low-ball hitters, lefties in general. I think it goes batter for batter but more four-seams today."
The Nats offense enjoyed an RBI triple by Adam Eaton and a Juan Soto sacrifice fly to get at Kershaw (9-2) in the first and build a 2-0 lead. But the three-time Cy Young award winner struck out nine batters and didn't allow another run through six innings. Kershaw surrendered only two runs on three hits over those six innings with three walks and one wild pitch.
"(Kershaw) is really good," Martinez said. "He made his pitches when he had to. We jumped on him early and then he was very effective using both sides of the plate. When he gets like that, it's tough, you know? He's tough."
The toughest day at the plate went to Howie Kendrick who went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, a double play grounder and a walk. He has been mired in a slump with one base hit in his last nine games. Yan Gomes hit a solo shot off of reliever Joe Kelly to lead off the seventh.
Javy Guerra gave up Smith's three-run double in the seventh but did manage to record seven outs to help the bullpen. Now the Nats turn to Stephen Strasburg on Sunday to prevent the series sweep.
"So we got Strasburg tomorrow, come back tomorrow," Martinez said. "I think Guerra did a great job after he came in in that one inning and gave us the innings we needed. Our bullpen's fresh tomorrow. Let's come back tomorrow and win tomorrow."
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