Lefty-less bullpen turns tight game into lopsided loss (updated)

The entire weekend seemed to have been building up to this moment, with Kyle Schwarber stepping to the plate for the Phillies in a big spot in a close ballgame and Davey Martinez left to decide which of his Nationals pitchers to entrust against the veteran slugger.

Martinez’s options with two on and two out in the top of the sixth this afternoon were Trevor Williams, who had already thrown 101 pitches and was attempting to complete six innings for only the third time in 12 starts this year, or a member of his bullpen.

It should’ve been an easy call. Just walk toward the mound, stick out your left arm and tap it a couple times with your right hand.

The problem: The Nationals don’t have any left-handers in their eight-man bullpen. They haven’t had one since April 30, when Anthony Banda (owner of a 6.43 ERA) was designated for assignment.

Martinez has been left to tempt fate for the last five weeks, hoping his various right-handers can get the job done against the league’s best lefty sluggers. Sometimes, it’s worked out fine. Today, it turned into disaster.

Andrés Machado, summoned out of the 'pen to face Schwarber and keep the Nats within a run, instead served up a three-run homer to the big guy, the decisive blow in what ended as a lopsided 11-3 victory by the Phillies.

"We try to match up the best we can," Martinez said. "We've made it this far doing a good job (without a lefty). But we've got to make our pitches. When you've got guys up there like that, you've got to throw strikes, you've got to get ahead and you've got to finish them off. Make better pitches."

The rubber game of a highly competitive weekend series was another compelling affair. Williams and Ranger Suárez each pitched effectively for five-plus innings, Williams giving up solo homers to J.T. Realmuto and Drew Ellis, Suárez giving up a fourth-inning run on Joey Meneses’ first career triple and Stone Garrett’s sacrifice fly.

So the game was still well within reach in the top of the sixth, the Nationals down 2-1 as Williams took the mound trying to reach the magic 18-out threshold for a starter and allow Martinez to use his top bullpen trio for the final three frames. Williams recorded a pair of strikeouts, giving him six for the afternoon, but couldn’t quite get the final out when No. 9 batter Ellis beat out a grounder to the hole at short.

That brought Schwarber to the plate in a big spot. Williams had struck him out twice in three at-bats today, but he also had just crossed the 100-pitch mark for the first time July 2021 when he was with the Cubs. Machado, against whom lefties had been 9-for-30 with two homers, had been warming in the bullpen since the start of the inning.

"Pitch count. Pitch count. Pitch count," Martinez said when asked what his calculation was in that moment. "You're talking about a guy that threw out of the bullpen (for the Mets) all last year. He's done a lot for us. That's five innings at 100-plus pitches."

So Martinez signaled for the right-handed reliever. Four pitches later, Schwarber was circling the bases after driving a 97 mph fastball over the out-of-town scoreboard in right field.

"I had no problem turning the ball over to Machado right there," Williams said. "He's got a much better fastball than I do, and the game showed that Machado was going to come in. It's unfortunate that sometimes those decisions don't necessarily work out. But at the time, it was the fourth time through the lineup. ... I have to do a better job of limiting the walks. That's a big thing today. If I limit the walks, we're not pitching the fourth time through in the sixth inning."  

Machado would face nine batters in total before finally departing. He retired only three of them and gave up another homer, this time to the right-handed Ellis, who entered the day with one career homer in the majors and ended it with three.

"Coming in, I tried to do the best I could do," said Machado, who now owns an 8.47 ERA but zero minor league options. "I think I missed that pitch (to Schwarber). I tried to go inside, it ran a little bit over the middle. But it's tough when you're coming in. You're trying to do the best, and nothing can happen."

Ellis' blast extended the Phillies’ lead to 8-1 and effectively put the game out of reach for the Nationals. Martinez had no reason to use his top relievers in this one, instead having Mason Thompson and Thaddeus Ward (who allowed another three-run homer to Schwarber in the ninth) finish it out while Carl Edwards Jr., Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan rested up for Tuesday’s series opener against the Diamondbacks.

Having missed an opportunity to take two of three from the defending NL champs and catch them in the standings, the Nats now must ponder how much longer they can continue with the bullpen as currently constructed.

They could finally have a lefty again soon if they believe Sean Doolittle is finally ready to return from last summer’s elbow surgery. The 36-year-old has made four rehab appearances at the Single-A level, having just gone back-to-back days Thursday and Friday in Fredericksburg. Whether he has a chance of returning to his pre-injury form is a major question at this point.

Beyond that, the options at Triple-A Rochester leave something to be desired. Lefties Jose Ferrer and Alberto Baldonado each have ERAs in the 3.00s but WHIPs over 1.400, and Baldonado isn’t on the 40-man roster. Matt Cronin has a 5.04 ERA and is on the injured list. Right-handed relievers with an ERA under 4.00 are Jordan Weems, Gerson Moreno, Tyler Danish and Amos Willingham, with only Weems on the 40-man roster.

It remains to be seen if anyone from that group, or some other eventual addition, can make a positive difference. Until then, the Nationals will try to make do with what they have. They had a chance to take a weekend series from one of their toughest division rivals. They emerged with one victory and two tough-to-swallow losses.

"I think we have a very competitive team on this side," Meneses said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Unfortunately, there was one big inning for them that kind of opened the game and the floodgates. But I think compared to them, we're a very good team as well."

Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi to throw out ceremoni...
Abrams gets another day off, Smith stays in lineup

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to https://www.masnsports.com/