NEW YORK - If Davey Martinez was asked this morning to draw up a best-case scenario for the Nationals’ series finale against the Mets, this had to be awfully close to what the second-year manager imagined.
With his bullpen in shambles but his ace on the mound, Martinez was hoping not only for a dominant Max Scherzer start but also a big day at the plate against Zack Wheeler and the New York pitching staff, creating a comfortable lead that would take all the pressure off that beleaguered bullpen.
Which is exactly what happened. And it still wasn’t enough to take the pressure off the bullpen.
Despite opening up a commanding 11-run lead in the seventh inning, Martinez and the Nationals had to sweat this one out until the very end, watching as the relief corps turned the game competitive again before hanging on for a 12-9 victory that was as emotionally exhausting as a game like this should ever have been.
Matt Grace gave up a three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh. Trevor Rosenthal, given an opportunity to take the mound after a three-day mental break, faced only two batters, hitting one, walking the other on four pitches and also uncorking two wild pitches. Wander Suero cleaned up the mess in the eighth, but the just-recalled Joe Ross served up a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to force closer Sean Doolittle into a game he had no business ever appearing in.
Doolittle finished it off, but the end result of this fiasco couldn’t have done much to cure the damaged psyche of the Nats bullpen as a whole and Rosenthal in particular.
“I’ve never been through anything quite like this, so it’s kind of tough,” said Rosenthal, who has failed to retire any of the nine batters he has faced in 2019. “Just because physically I feel so good and so strong. Just the ball is not going exactly where I want it to. So I’m just pressing a little bit too much now to make a really good pitch. But I think it’s something that I’m going to work out of. I’m going to get there. Just hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.”
Can the Nationals afford to keep giving Rosenthal opportunities to get out of it, though? That remains to be seen.
“We have to come up with something,” Martinez said. “We have to figure something out for him. We tried to tweak something with his mechanics, but we’ve got to keep working on it. It’s tough, because up here you’ve only got so many guys in the bullpen. You need everybody. I tried to give guys off today that have been pitching quite a bit. These guys have got to pitch. But we’re going to need Rosey. We really are. So we’ve got to get him right.”
The Nationals will have to figure out what steps to take next with Rosenthal and the rest of a bullpen that now sports a collective 10.02 ERA. In the meantime, they’ll take a road series victory over the Mets and a 4-4 overall record with them to Philadelphia for another big series with Bryce Harper the next three nights.
“Here’s where I’m at right now,” Martinez said. “We come to New York, which is a tough place to play. We win two out of three. Should’ve won possibly three. So I’m satisfied with that. But yet there’s work to be done. I’m going to enjoy it tonight. I’m going to have my glass of wine when you guys leave the room. And I’m going to go back to my room tonight and figure out a lineup for tomorrow and get ready for tomorrow.”
Taking advantage of Wheeler’s wildness (seven walks in 4 2/3 innings), the Nationals jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the top of the second. And wouldn’t you know it but the first run was driven in by Scherzer himself, whose bases-loaded single through the left side of the infield got things started.
Scherzer would give a run back in the bottom of the inning - with help from Adam Eaton, who made an overly aggressive play on a sinking liner to right that ultimately let the batter reach third base - but the ace was bailed out by one of the strangest double plays you’ll ever see in a major league game.
With two on and one out, Scherzer struck out Keon Broxton on a pitch that deflected off catcher Kurt Suzuki’s mitt. Broxton decided to try to advance to first, forgetting that a batter can’t do that with a runner on first and fewer than two outs. That prompted both runners to try to advance. Suzuki threw late to Anthony Rendon at third, but Rendon then threw to shortstop Wilmer Difo, who tagged out J.D. Davis, who inexplicably stopped in between first and second in apparent confusion over the whole mess.
Good luck trying to explain that to someone who didn’t witness it, but the only thing that mattered in the end is that the Nationals got an inning-ending double play.
“I had no idea what was going on,” Scherzer said. “I thought he foul-tipped it, but then he started running, so then I realized he didn’t. And I’m still at a loss of words of how we got the third out.”
Scherzer did settle in after that, at one point retiring 12 of 13 batters, six of those via strikeout. And in keeping his pitch count reasonable, he gave himself a chance to go deep into this game.
But a fifth-inning comebacker off Scherzer’s lower right leg had some lasting effects. By the seventh, it affected him enough to lead to three hits in a span of four batters, prompting Martinez to pull him and turn things over to the bullpen.
Scherzer, who had the leg wrapped postgame, insisted this won’t be a problem moving forward.
“Right now, it feels like crap,” he said. “It was fine during the game. I was able just to kind of keep it moving and it didn’t tighten up. But once I came out of the game, once you lose the adrenaline, it tightened up pretty good. So it kind of hurts to walk right now. But this was just a little bone bruise. I’ll be fine here.”
The Nationals thought they had given Scherzer more than a comfortable lead. Four tack-on runs in the fifth and sixth helped. After Wheeler departed in the fifth, the Mets asked Tim Peterson to clean up the mess. The right-hander only made things worse, walking five more batters in 1 2/3 innings to allow two more runs to cross the plate.
And then Rendon delivered the death blow: a three-run homer off Luis Avilán in the top of the seventh, extending the lead to 12-1 with his fourth homer in five games to cap off what should have been the Nationals’ first laugher of a season that has needed one.
This, of course, didn’t end up as a laugher because of a bullpen that continues to make itself the dominant story every day for the Nationals. They survived today, but they aren’t any more confident today than they were 24 hours ago.
“Everybody in the big leagues, at some point in time, has been punched in the face,” Scherzer said when asked specifically about Rosenthal. “It’s not a fun feeling. You got to continue to keep grinding and believe in yourself. That’s the hardest part. And that’s what your teammates are for.
“It’s time to be a good teammate and pick him up and believe in him. We know he’s capable of pitching great for us. It’s just one of those things right now where it doesn’t seem like it is going his way. But that’s the big leagues. That’s the life here. We’re trying to do what we do, and you can’t let that ever affect your confidence, because confidence is a choice.”