BALTIMORE - A game that featured a lot of quality at-bats by a reconfigured lineup, a heated (and very audible) exchange with the plate umpire that led to the ejection of the hitting coach and dismissal of a pitcher watching from the stands, a dominant start by Max Scherzer that imploded via a couple of monster home runs and then a gift error to allow the go-ahead run to score ultimately came down to the two flamethrowers the Nationals now deploy at the back of their bullpen.
The Nats were going to escape from Camden Yards with a series victory only if Tanner Rainey and Daniel Hudson could hold a one-run lead against a feisty Orioles club that has given the defending champions all they can handle in six head-to-head games this season.
There were some harrowing moments along the way, but that potent bullpen combo did finish off a 6-5 victory and sent the Nationals to Atlanta with two very hard-earned wins this weekend against their re-energized geographic rivals.
“We won. At the end of the day, we won,” Scherzer said, referencing his own outing, but it applies to the team as a whole today. “Yeah, I can go back and watch the video and critique myself. At the end of the day, I come here to win. We won today, so that’s the most important thing.”
A game that became tied after Scherzer allowed home runs to Pedro Severino and Anthony Santander turned back the Nats’ way in the top of the eighth when Orioles third baseman Rio Ruiz fielded Kurt Suzuki’s routine grounder and threw the ball away. The inning should’ve been over. Instead, the error allowed Juan Soto to score from second and give the Nationals the lead back.
Rainey then wriggled his way out of a jam in the bottom of the eighth, striking out Chance Sisco, Severino and Dwight Smith Jr., all looking at fastballs, the final one with the tying run 90 feet away.
“When he gets to two strikes, everyone knows he’s got a really good slider,” manager Davey Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “But they’ve got to realize he can also throw a fastball. Now that he’s locating his fastball, it’s tough. That’s a tough at-bat for a hitter. His stuff is good right now. We’ve got to keep him that way. I love giving him the ball in the eighth inning.”
It was the latest eye-opening performance from Rainey, who ascended to the primary setup role with Sean Doolittle and Will Harris hurting and struggling. And after Hudson (who blew a save against the Orioles last weekend in Washington) finished this one off with a 1-2-3 ninth, a Nationals club desperate for a win after a ragged 7-11 start had only its second one-run win of this 60-game season.
“They’ve had our number, for whatever reason, this season,” Hudson said of the Orioles, who won four of six in this year’s Battle of the Beltways. “To get a little redemption from the game at home that we blew late ... to get out of here with a W makes up for that a little bit.”
The most heated moment of this one came in the second inning, when hitting coach Kevin Long and pitcher Aníbal Sánchez (sitting in the stands) appeared both to be ejected complaining about Will Little’s strike zone, their arguments quite audible within the empty ballpark and on TV screens around the region.
“It’s something we need to talk about,” Martinez said with a laugh. “We’re all competing, and we’re all trying to do our best, and those things happen. It kind of stinks that you can hear everything. I try to muffle everything with this mask, and if I do say something I try to cover up my mouth, but it’s just part of the game. But it is ugly, I’m not going to lie to you. Sometimes you say things you don’t want to say. It just happens.”
Martinez clarified that only Long was actually ejected. Crew chief Ángel Hernández asked him to tell Sánchez to leave the stands, where rotation members not pitching have been sitting this season.
That was it for drama off the field. The seventh inning featured high drama on the field.
His pitch count at 96 when the inning began, Scherzer retired the first two batters he faced. Now, with Santander (who already homered in the first) at the plate and Rainey warm in the bullpen, Martinez had a decision to make.
The manager stuck with his ace. And Scherzer responded by leaving a 2-0 changeup over the plate to Santander, who blasted it down the right field line for the game-tying homer.
“Obviously, that was a big home run there in the seventh,” Scherzer said. “I pride myself on making sure I’m strong, that the seventh inning could still be my best inning. So, for me, that’s frustrating to give up that homer in that situation.”
The homer spoiled what could’ve been a dominant start. Scherzer struck out 10 and looked as good as he has in weeks. But all five runs he allowed came via three homers.
“It does happen,” Martinez said. “He tries to elevate his fastball. Sometimes he leaves balls up, and they get hit hard. But he competes. For me, there’s really nobody else you want in the game when the game’s on the line than Max Scherzer.”
And so with what once was a 5-1 Nationals lead now evaporated, the game was to be determined late by the bullpens.
With Starlin Castro injured, Howie Kendrick on the bench for the second straight day with a tight hamstring and Adam Eaton, Eric Thames and Luis García all sitting against a left-hander, the Nationals lineup bore little resemblance to any previously seen this season. What that group lacked in familiarity was more than up for in quality at-bats, especially in a much-needed, three-run top of the first.
Trea Turner, as aggressive a leadoff hitter as there is in the majors, worked an 11-pitch walk to set the table. Soto, batting second for the first time this season and only the second time since he was a rookie, then beat the shift with an opposite-field single. And when Cabrera notched his 10th hit in 20 at-bats versus lefties, the Nats were on the board first.
It continued. Kurt Suzuki, batting cleanup for only the 12th time in the last decade, lofted a rare opposite-field single to right, and Carter Kieboom followed with a sacrifice fly. And when Victor Robles delivered a two-out RBI single to left, the Nationals had a 3-0 lead and forced Orioles starter John Means out of the game after only 34 pitches.
“Means hadn’t pitched in a while,” Martinez said. “We just told the guys to get the ball up and swing at strikes. They put some good at-bats together. Anytime you come out and score three runs when you have your No. 1 guy out there, that’s pretty nice.”
There would be more quality at-bats throughout the afternoon, though runs didn’t come as easily as they did in the top of the first. Suzuki (sac fly) and Kieboom (RBI single to right) teamed up again to drive in a pair in the fifth, but the Nationals left the bases loaded that inning and again in the sixth against Baltimore’s bullpen.
That didn’t seem like it would be a problem. Until it very much became a problem thanks to two big swings off Scherzer, the first by one of his former batterymates.
Once upon a time, Severino was supposed to be the Nationals’ catcher of the future. But after failing to capitalize on ample opportunities to prove he actually deserved that job, Severino (who was out of options) was placed on waivers and scooped up by the Orioles. He has since taken off and become the catcher the Nationals always hoped he would.
And today all of that came together in the bottom of the sixth, when Severino stepped to the plate with two on and hammered a 2-0 fastball from Scherzer down the left field and inside the foul pole for a three-run homer.
What had been a fairly dominant start by Scherzer was now turning tenuous. And one inning later, it fell apart, turning this into a whole new ballgame, albeit one the visitors still found satisfying at day’s end.
“It was nice that we scored and were able to get the win,” Martinez said.