The Nationals have gotten used to this by now, looking up at the scoreboard and staring at a string of zeros, not only in their column but next to the opponent’s name as well. They’d already been involved in four games that were scoreless entering the sixth, not to mention three games that finished 1-0. (They won two of those, against the Diamondbacks and Cardinals, and lost the other, to the Dodgers.)
So tonight’s series opener against the Marlins on a blustery night on South Capitol Street had plenty of familiar themes, the only difference this time being the man who started the game on the mound for them: Jon Lester.
In his delayed season debut, Lester did everything the Nationals reasonably could’ve expected from the veteran, tossing five scoreless innings. But his counterpart, Miami’s Pablo López, put up seven consecutive zeros.
And because the relievers who followed did not wilt, either, tonight’s game reached new territory for 2021: extra innings.
Neither team was capable of scoring a run under baseball’s real rules, so they had to try to do it with an automatic runner placed on second base. At which point the Marlins did just enough to bring him home and take the lead. After which Kyle Schwarber wiped it all out with one mighty swing to lead the Nationals to victory.
With his second walk-off homer of the young season, Schwarber brought the Nats back to life, lifting them to a 2-1 10-inning victory that started with a whimper but ended with a bang.
“Obviously, it’s nice to come up in that spot and deliver,” Schwarber said during a postgame Zoom session with reporters in which he donned a red Capitals helmet. “That wasn’t my intention. Obviously, I wanted to drive him in, but the secondary option was to get him to third base. ... Once the ball went into the stands, that’s a good feeling to know that we got a walk-off win right there.”
After watching the Marlins score a run in the top of the 10th on Garrett Cooper’s bloop single to left off Brad Hand, bringing home their automatic runner, the Nationals stepped to the plate for their shot at an easy run. Josh Bell, who made the final out of the ninth, was placed on second base. And Schwarber stepped to the plate with a chance to drive him in.
The big left fielder did more than that. He drove Bell and himself in with a blast to right-center off Yimi García. It wasn’t quite as titanic as his 463-foot walk-off homer two weeks ago against the Diamondbacks, but the 454-foot “wall-scraper” more than did the trick on a night when runs were extremely tough to come by.
“It’s hard,” manager Davey Martinez said. “You’re trying to play for a run to tie the game, but you’ve got a guy who hits the ball like that. I told him go up there and take a swing, see what happens. Typical Schwarber. He hits one 400 feet.”
Martinez has seen Schwarber do this countless times over the years, and so has Lester, who during his six years with the Cubs and now in his first year with the Nationals has watched his good friend homer in 24 of his starts.
“I always feel like he hits so well when I pitch,” the lefty said. “It’s probably caused he’s maybe messed something up out there in left field - we won’t go there, that’s a running joke with us. I know the biggest thing with him is he’s giving you 110 percent regardless of who’s out there. He’ll literally run through the wall for you if he can. He’s such a competitor.”
Given Lester’s unconventional spring - he missed a couple of weeks in early March following parathyroid surgery, then landed on the COVID-19 IL on opening day - nobody really knew what to expect from him in his much-delayed season debut, including the man himself.
“The hardest part is sitting back and seeing everybody else play and not being able to be a part of it. It makes you miss it,” Lester said. “Like you can kind of taste it, but you can’t. You’re there, but you’re not. A lot of hoops to jump through to get back to this point. I’m just glad that we got through it unscathed and got this one under the belt.”
If Lester can keep doing what he did tonight, the Nationals will be glad to have him for the next five months. The 37-year-old might not be what he once was with the Red Sox and Cubs, but he can still be quite effective when he keeps the ball down in the zone and away from hitters.
Lester had only one clean inning, the top of the fourth, but he consistently made pitches when he needed to get out of jams, and got some help from his defense as well. Starlin Castro made a nice play at third on a hot shot from Lewis Brinson with two on and two out in the third. Trea Turner then started a nifty 6-4-3 double play with two on and one out in the fifth, drawing a roar from the crowd of 8,295.
“I wasn’t as crisp as I would’ve liked tonight, but we got it done,” Lester said. “Sometimes you’ve got to rely on a little bit of luck, as opposed to being good. I’ll take it and move onto the next one.”
The Turner-created double play came on Lester’s 70th pitch of the night, and that’s as far as Martinez wanted to push him in his debut. Though he made it up to 90 pitches in the last of his three simulated games at the alternate site in Fredericksburg, that was no comparison to the intensity of an actual big league game.
Despite the five zeros he posted, Lester departed with no decision to his name because the Nationals lineup once again was rendered ice cold by an opposing starter. Tonight’s beneficiary was López, the Marlins right-hander who made much quicker work of the Nats than Lester did of the Fish, facing the minimum in three of his seven innings.
The Nationals didn’t give themselves many good opportunities, and when they did they squandered them in a flash. With two on and one out in the first, Castro swung at the first pitch he saw and flied out to shallow right, not deep enough to score Josh Harrison from third. After Bell drew a four-pitch walk, Schwarber popped up to third.
There were three inning-ending double plays - from Yadiel Hernandez, Castro and Alex Avila - plus another double play in the eighth from pinch-hitter Andrew Stevenson. And there was another out made on the bases, when Victor Robles was nabbed trying to swipe second in the bottom of the first. Thus did the Nationals fall to an abysmal 7-for-13 in stolen base attempts this season, a stat all the more alarming when you consider Turner is 5-for-5.
And so yet again the Nationals found themselves embroiled in a scoreless game late into the night. It makes for quick baseball, but it does makes for some tense baseball, with zero margin for error.
It also makes the end result all the sweeter, especially when it happens the way it did tonight.
“You try not to think about it; we’re down 1-0,” Martinez said. “But with our lineup, I always feel like with a one-run deficit, we’ve got a chance to do some damage. It’s never over ‘til that final out, and the boys proved it again tonight.”