SAN FRANCISCO - Trea Turner is starting in center field again tonight for the Nationals, the rookie’s third straight game at the position he had never played professionally until a six-game tryout at Triple-A Syracuse a month ago.
That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, given Turner’s offensive performance the last two days in Cleveland - 4-for-8 with two doubles, three RBIs, a walk and a stolen base - and his adequate play in the outfield. But manager Dusty Baker isn’t committing to the 23-year-old as the answer to his team’s leadoff and center field woes just yet.
“I don’t look at it like that,” Baker said prior to tonight’s series opener against the Giants. “I just thought that was the best lineup for the day. He’s been doing well. The matchup tonight ... right-handers actually hit Johnny Cueto a little better than left-handers. That’s not to say much, but you’ll take any edge that you can get. Tomorrow’s going to be something different.”
Turner could still find his way into the lineup at another position. Perhaps at second base, with Daniel Murphy sliding over to first base and struggling Ryan Zimmerman on the bench. Or perhaps at shortstop, where Danny Espinosa is slumping again (six for his last 56) after his torrid June.
No matter what lineup he fields, Baker is going to have to play at least one or two struggling hitters. Ben Revere is sitting tonight, but the veteran outfielder has been getting words of encouragement (and more) from his manager.
“You get tired of hearing: ‘You hit it hard,’ or ‘Hang in there,’ ” Baker said. “You get tired of hearing all those things, and sometimes you run out of things to say. You just hope and pray that he gets some breaks. Ben’s hit the ball hard and got nothing for it.”
Also struggling now is Bryce Harper, who carries an 0-for-17 slump into this series and has seen his season batting average plummet to .237.
Baker continues to offer advice and encouragement to the reigning National League MVP, but he’s also trying not to clog Harper’s head with too much info.
“I’ve given him some,” Baker said. “Everybody’s given him some. We hate to see him struggle like this, but after a while it seems like the more you give and the more advice you give - we’ve all been there at some point in time - it seems just to be more confusing than anything. The main thing I can say is just try to simplify it best you can. Just remember what it was like, the feeling it was like when we were really getting down. One thing that’s for sure: I know it’s going to be right on time like everything else.”
Update: Three innings are in the books, and the Nats have taken a 3-1 lead thanks to an awfully impressive rally in the top of the second. They recorded four consecutive two-out hits off Johnny Cueto, with Danny Espinosa and Tanner Roark and Turner all driving in runs. They might have really exploded if they just weren’t playing in this spacious ballpark. Instead, Daniel Murphy’s bases-loaded drive to deep right-center was caught at the warning track. Cueto’s pitch count is already at 75 after three innings. Roark, meanwhile, pitched his way out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the bottom of the second with only one run crossing the plate.
Update II: Make it 4-1 Nats after Turner’s broken-bat single and Harper’s RBI double in the top of the sixth. That hit - down the left-field line - snapped Harper’s 0-for-19 slump and amazingly was only his 12th double of the season. The Nats managed to knock Cueto out after five innings and 101 pitches, so they’re into the Giants bullpen now. Roark has been more efficient, but he enters the bottom of the sixth at 87 pitches. So Baker will need his bullpen tonight. He would certainly like to own more than a three-run lead before handing the game over to that group, however.
Update III: Roark finished off his night in impressive fashion, punching out pinch-hitter Ramiro Pena to end the seventh at 111 pitches. He wound up allowing just one run on four hits in a very strong performance. Now with the Nats up 4-1, it’s going to be fascinating to see how Baker uses his bullpen to record the final six outs.
Update IV: Nats win. But it wasn’t easy. After Sammy Solis pitched a scoreless eighth, Baker gave the ball to Jonathan Papelbon for the ninth. But he took that ball away from his closer rather quickly after a one-out single and walk. In came Oliver Perez, who walked the first batter he faced to load the bases. Then Rendon and Espinosa botched what might have been a game-ending double play, bringing one run home and keeping the inning alive. Perez bounced back to strike out Span, at which point Baker then summoned Shawn Kelley to get the final out. Which he did, striking out Angel Pagan. Nats win 4-2. The bigger question: What in the world do they now do with Papelbon?