If not for the date on the calendar, you would have thought Tuesday night’s game was a late Grapefruit League matchup between the Nationals and Blue Jays. A spring training stadium only filled with 1,471 fans under a clear Florida night sky. Plenty of hard-hit balls and loud outs. Balls lost in the Florida breeze and the lack of major league lighting. And a handful of pitching changes, at least by one team.
Alas, Tuesday night’s game counted, and the Nationals found themselves on the wrong side of a 9-5 score and fell to 8-12 on the season.
Ironically enough for a team that hadn’t homered in exactly a week, the longball gave the Nationals life early and took it away just as quickly in this one.
Trea Turner, feeling well enough to play after suffering a contusion by a pitch in his left forearm on Sunday afternoon, got things started with a leadoff home run three pitches into the game.
Blue Jays opener Trent Thornton got away with a curveball off the plate for strike two, but then Turner made him pay for coming right back to that pitch and putting it over the plate by sending it over the left field wall for his team-leading fifth home run.
In Turner’s second at-bat, Thornton left a cutter right over the middle of the plate and the shortstop launched it to left-center for a 2-0 lead and his seventh career multi-home run game, the second this season.
“I’m just not missing pitches,” Turner said after the game via Zoom. “I felt like the two pitches I hit were with two strikes, so I just stay in there and battle and try to get a mistake and put a good swing on it, and they happened to go out of the ballpark. So I feel like I’m headed in the right direction and just trying to become more consistent and have good at-bats.”
Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo immediately made the first of his many pitching changes during this planned bullpen game, bringing on two-time former Nationals left-hander Tommy Milone to face Yadiel Hernandez, who was in the two-hole for the third straight game.
Manager Davey Martinez said before the game that he likes Hernandez in that spot because he gets on base, hits the ball well and “can put the ball in the seats just as good as anybody.”
Which is exactly what he did.
On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Hernandez crushed an 85 mph fastball for his first homer of the season and a 3-0 lead on three solo shots.
And with Max Scherzer bringing a 17-inning scoreless streak into this start, you would think that hot start would be enough for the Nationals to end the night with a win.
But as the longball gives, it also takes away.
Scherzer hadn’t given up a home run since allowing four on opening day to the Braves. Those were all solo shots, so the damage wasn’t too bad. He wasn’t as fortunate against the Jays.
In the bottom of the third with one out, Scherzer gave up back-to-back singles to No. 9 hitter Alejandro Kirk and leadoff man Cavan Biggio (the latter of which came off the glove of Josh Harrison at second base), then walked Bo Bichette on a full count to bring up Vladimir Guerrero Jr. with the bases loaded. Scherzer induced a double play ball from Guerrero his first time up and needed another one to get out of this jam.
But the veteran starter left a fifth-pitch slider up in the zone for the young slugger to crush for a grand slam and 4-3 Blue Jays lead.
“He was good other than on Vladimir,” Martinez said of Scherzer’s outing. “He got the ball up, out over the plate. You can’t make mistakes in this ballpark, I can tell you that right now. As you can see, the ball travels fairly well. I just thought he threw the ball up over the zone and Vladdy put good swings on them.”
“I wanted a slider down and away in that situation and it just stayed thigh-high,” Scherzer said of his approach to Guerrero in the at-bat that resulted in the slam. “I picked up too much of the zone in that scenario. I had already shown him enough, so I know that was kind of a dangerous pitch to throw. But I thought if I got it down and away, we had a chance to get another ground ball out of him or at least get it to two strikes, maybe he could foul it off. Unfortunately, it did work that way.”
Even more unfortunately, that wouldn’t be all the damage off Scherzer, even though the next few runs weren’t charged to the pitcher. In the very next frame, Joe Panik hit a leadoff double to right to immediately put a runner in scoring position. Two batters later, the Nationals’ inability to do the little things reared its ugly head again, as Kirk hit what should have been a routine popup that Harrison couldn’t track down and booted into right field. Panik scored easily while Kirk made his way to third and promptly scored another unearned run on a Biggio sac fly.
And then Guerrero tagged Scherzer again, this time a solo home run to lead off the fifth inning, but nonetheless adding to the Blue Jays lead.
Scherzer seemed to struggle with location on his fastball and slider the entire night. And though he was consistently pumping his heater for 95 mph early on, his velocity dropped to 92 mph as the night progressed and resulted in a lot of loud outs. Something we didn’t see in his last outing as he was able to maintain his velo throughout the start.
“I didn’t pitch well tonight, that’s obvious,” Scherzer said. “I didn’t execute. I was really inconsistent with my glove-side stuff, where sometimes I would execute a slider, fastball glove-side and next time I would be leaving it arm-side. To me, that’s what I gotta fix, I gotta clean up and dial it in. Then there’s just too many pitches that are thigh-high. Everybody in the league now can just crush thigh-high pitches, and so you gotta work around that. You gotta pitch up, you gotta pitch down. And so I need to do a better job of getting out of that thigh-high region.”
He finished the night after five innings, giving up eight hits, seven runs (five earned), two walks and the two home runs while striking out five on 86 pitches.
“The balls fly here at this ballpark,” said Martinez. “But Vladdy had some good swings. Some of those balls were hit hard. So we just gotta make better pitches.”
Despite the early run support, the Nationals offense couldn’t get back in the game when they needed to and it was not for a lack of opportunities.
In the fourth inning down just a run, they loaded the bases by way of a Kyle Schwarber double, Harrison single and Alex Avila walk. But Victor Robles promptly grounded into a double play to end the threat.
They threatened again in the fifth after Turner was hit by a pitch for the second time in as many games and Ryan Zimmerman drew a walk. But Josh Bell struck out looking and Schwarber lined out to left.
Then finally in the top of the seventh, Zimmerman gave them a glimmer of hope with a two-run shot to right with Hernandez again on base after a single. That cut the Jays’ lead in half to make it a 7-5 game and perhaps set up a late rally that you would regularly see in Grapefruit League game.
But in the bottom half of the frame, Guerrero snagged that four-run lead right back with a two-run homer off Kyle Finnegan, his third on the night and seventh on the season.
“We had some opportunities,” Martinez said. “You know, Schwarber’s starting to hit the ball pretty well. I mean, he’s lining out. I can’t believe the left fielder is standing over the on the line. But he’s starting to swing the bat. We gotta get Josh going. I mean he’s a big, big part of the middle of our lineup. And he’s gonna get going, I know that. So hopefully, we’ll get him going. He took some good swings today. Like I said, he’s just fouling balls off that I saw him hit in spring training. So we just gotta get him going. Zim had a good day today, hit the ball hard, drove in a couple of runs for us. And Trea had a good day and Yadi had a good day, so just gotta get that middle of our lineup going.”
All in all, seven home runs were hit on the night: four by the Nationals and three by Guerrero. The Nats’ longballs scored five runs. Gurerro’s scored seven.
This was just the latest example of the inconsistencies in the Nationals’ game right now.
When they get early offense, they don’t get starting pitching. When they can least afford it, they make costly errors that result in runs for their opponent. When they need clutch hitting, they can’t connect. When they do connect, they give the runs right back.
Yes, the Nationals have dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak, a tough schedule and a lot of injuries to key players. But that doesn’t make this first month’s results any less frustrating.
“Typically, when we score five runs, you got Max Scherzer on the mound, that usually ends up with a curly W win. It didn’t tonight,” said Martinez. “Like I said, Vladdy swung the bat well and had some timely home runs there. So we’ll come back tomorrow, (Erick) Fedde’s going for us and we’ll try to go 1-0 tomorrow.”