As they mapped out their pitching plan for the final week of the season, the Nationals knew they were going to need somebody who wasn’t already on the active big league roster to start the nightcap of today’s doubleheader against the Phillies.
They hoped all along they could give that start to MacKenzie Gore, the talented left-hander acquired from the Padres in the Juan Soto blockbuster trade who has spent the last 2 1/2 months rehabbing from inflammation in his elbow. But when Gore struggled to build up his stamina during a rehab stint at Triple-A Rochester to a point he would’ve been comfortable throwing more than three innings, the Nats decided not to activate him off the injured list.
That’s how Tommy Romero found himself taking the mound tonight at rainy Nationals Park, a 25-year-old right-hander claimed off waivers from the Rays in August who had pitched well enough at Triple-A to convince club officials they wanted to get a look at him.
By the time Romero handed the ball back to manager Davey Martinez after 3 2/3 disastrous innings, there was reason to wonder if club officials will want to see more of him.
The Phillies blasted Romero for eight runs on eight hits, five of those homers, and ran away with an 8-2 victory to regain a one-game lead over the Brewers for the National League’s final wild card berth with four games to play in the regular season.
The Nationals, of course, have long since been eliminated from any postseason race. They’ve now lost a major league leading 103 games, which matches the club record established in 2009.
"I'm not going to go off anything I saw today," Martinez said of Romero. "It was a tough outing for him. All the waiting, the rain, it was just bad. ... I'll talk to him here after we're done and tell him: 'I don't know what's going to happen this winter, but hang in there. I'm not going to judge you for just one game.' "
Romero’s Nationals debut – he made three appearances for Tampa Bay earlier this year, so this wasn’t his major league debut – wound up making history for the wrong reasons: He’s the first pitcher in club history to allow five home runs in one start.
Only two pitchers in Washington’s major league history had done that: the expansion Senators’ Denny McLain in 1971 and the original Senators’ Firpo Marberry in 1932.
"I like to be pitching at the top of the strike zone, but obviously the pitches today were above that, and they weren't swinging at them," Romero said. "They were just looking for pitches down the middle, and they got them."
Romero didn’t even have time to settle in and appreciate this opportunity he had been given tonight, because Kyle Schwarber blasted his second pitch of the game into the second deck in right field for his sixth leadoff homer of the year.
Schwarber would do it again to lead off the fourth, this time reaching the batter’s eye in center field for his league-leading 44th homer of the season, his 10th against the Nationals. That’s a record for home runs by a single player against this team since it arrived in town in 2005.
Schwarber accounted for the first and the last homers off Romero tonight. The other three came in rapid succession in the top of the third. Alec Bohm hammered a first-pitch fastball to left. Brandon Marsh immediately followed with a shot down the right field line on a 2-2 splitter. Three batters later, Matt Vierling blasted an 0-1 slider to left to complete a five-run rally.
"I'm going to have a short memory here," Romero said. "It sucks that it happened, but at the end of the day it's a learning experience, and I'm taking it that way. It's not bringing me down."
Through it all, Romero remained on the mound and nobody moved a muscle in the bullpen. In the nightcap of a doubleheader in Game 158 of the season, with Patrick Corbin scheduled to pitch Sunday after having his last start skipped due to a back injury, Martinez had little choice but to force the 25-year-old to take one for the team.
"Our bullpen ... we've got another game tomorrow," the manager said. "I was a little worried, because the last time Corbin pitched, he had the back issue. He's good, but you just never know, especially if it's cold and damp."
Down eight runs early, the Nationals didn’t have another big offensive performance in them like they did during this afternoon’s 13-4 blowout win. They didn’t record a hit off Noah Syndergaard until the fourth inning, when Joey Meneses singled to right. They didn’t have a runner in scoring position until the sixth, when Lane Thomas and Meneses each drew walks to knock Syndergaard from the game. They didn't score until the bottom of the ninth.