They had played far from a perfect ballgame, and certainly they didn’t tear the cover off the ball, but the Nationals nonetheless put themselves in position to beat the Phillies this evening, thanks to an effective start by Jon Lester, some timely hits in the sixth, a massive blunder in the outfield by Bryce Harper and strong setup work from Sam Clay and Daniel Hudson.
Victory, however, could not be secured until Brad Hand pitched a scoreless ninth, something that only a week ago felt like as sure a bet as there is with this club yet has since morphed into a gargantuan challenge.
And that challenge has only grown more daunting after another disastrous outing by the Nationals’ once-lockdown closer, who not only surrendered the game-tying homer to Odúbel Herrera in the ninth but wound up the pitcher of record in a 5-2 loss to the Phillies after allowing a single to Harper to begin the top of the 10th.
It was the latest in a suddenly disturbing series of meltdowns by Hand, who had not allowed an earned run in any of his first 10 innings out of the bullpen this season but has now been scored upon in each of his last five innings of work, spread out over three appearances.
And it left his manager both defending his closer and attempting to give his entire team a morale boost he felt was necessary after its seventh loss in eight games.
“This is the way I look at it: We’re going to win together, and we’re going to lose together,” Davey Martinez, who held a rare team meeting after this loss, said during his subsequent Zoom session with reporters. “Brad Hand did not lose the game. We’re going to stick together. I talked to the boys tonight, and we’re going to stay positive. We’re going through a rough time, as a team, not just one individual. We’re going to stay positive, and we’re going to get through this. We’ve been here before. I often talk about the bumpy roads. They’re bumpy right now, but we’ll get through it. We’ll get through it together.”
Despite Hand’s struggles last weekend at Yankee Stadium, Martinez entrusted tonight’s save situation to his closer, asked to protect a 2-1 lead against the bottom of the Philadelphia lineup. Command betrayed Hand in the Bronx. This time, it was one hanging slider to Herrera, who blasted it to center field for the game-tying homer and Hand’s second blown save after three successful conversions to open his season.
Hand did strike out three in the ninth, so he did at least give his teammates a chance to walk it off in the bottom of the inning. A broken-bat, one-out Trea Turner double, prompting an intentional walk of Juan Soto, brought Ryan Zimmerman to the plate with a chance to deliver the latest in a career full of walk-off hits. Alas, Zimmerman grounded into a 6-4-3 double play, and so extra innings were required.
At which point Martinez allowed Hand to re-take the mound, just as he did after blowing Saturday’s save. And the lefty immediately gave up an opposite-field single to Harper, putting the go-ahead runner on third as Martinez signaled for Kyle Finnegan out of the ‘pen.
“I wanted to bring him back to face Harper,” the manager said. “And the ball that Harper hit, it was a pretty good pitch. It was about a foot outside. He stuck the bat out, got a base hit. I wanted him to face Harper, and I thought Finnegan could get a ground ball for us.”
Finnegan, who was roughed up for three runs Tuesday night, again labored. He surrendered three RBI singles (to Rhys Hoskins, Nick Maton and Andrew Knapp), turning a tie game into a three-run deficit that proved far too massive for the Nats to overcome in the bottom of the 10th.
“I think I’ve got to be better with two strikes,” Finnegan said. “I’ve been able to get ahead, get to two strikes, get to putaway counts, and my off-speed hasn’t been as sharp these last two nights. ... I’m doing a good job getting to two strikes. I just need to execute better.”
The Nationals had been in position to win in regulation thanks to a sixth-inning rally that included a Zimmerman double, a Starlin Castro RBI single and an Alex Avila RBI triple made possible when Harper lost sight of the deep fly ball to right-center and collided with teammate Herrera.
The Sun Monster doesn’t usually make an appearance around here at 9:06 p.m., but Harper somehow still was taken down by his longtime South Capitol Street nemesis. And because of that miscue by the longtime National-turned-Phillie, the Nats took a 2-1 lead.
The rally was ignited by Zimmerman’s leadoff double. The veteran first baseman, given a chance to start ahead of ice-cold Josh Bell tonight, ripped a ball to the left-center gap and coasted into second base. Owner of a .476 slugging percentage, he’s now slugging .574 in limited action this season.
And this time, the Nationals kept the rally going. Castro, who already had extended his modest hitting streak to 10 games, sent a well-placed single up the middle to bring Zimmerman home with the tying run as part of a 4-for-4 night.
Moments later, Avila sent a long fly ball to right-center, well-struck but more than high enough to allow for Harper to camp under it and make the catch. Just one problem: Harper clearly couldn’t locate the ball. Nor could he locate Herrera, leading to the comical (if you’re from D.C.) image of the hulking superstar barreling into his center fielder as the ball trickled away behind them. Castro scored from first and Avila lumbered around the bases for his first triple since 2017.
“Just miscommunication on the ball, that’s what it was,” Harper told reporters. “One of us needed to take control right there and get that out. ... Definitely miscommunication out there. We need to be better, and that won’t happen again with me and him out there.”
It’s not quite how Martinez would’ve drawn up a go-ahead hit, but he gladly took it.
Lineup construction has become a daily chore for Martinez, and tonight he tried something completely new: Andrew Stevenson in the leadoff spot, with Jordy Mercer batting ninth behind the pitcher. The idea: Try to give the two best hitters he’s got (Turner and Soto) some chances to bat with runners in scoring position.
Alas, it didn’t happen during either of the first two trips through the batting order, and when it did actually come to fruition in the bottom of the fifth, the two big boys promptly struck out in succession to strand a pair on the bases.
So it was that for the 12th time in 32 games this season, the Nationals were scoreless entering the sixth inning, a 38 percent failure rate that sounds unfathomable until you look it up and realize it is indeed true.
“We’re close. We’re close,” Martinez said. “It’s just a matter of getting some timely hitting.”
As has so often been the case, though, the Nats were still very much in this game, thanks to an effective performance by their own starting pitcher. Lester was tonight’s saving grace, authoring his third straight solid pitching line to begin his season: six innings of one-run ball.
Lester still isn’t throwing a lot of clean innings, but he’s getting the job done. He gave up an RBI single to backup catcher Knapp in the top of the second, but he stranded runners in scoring position in the third and fifth - with a big assist from longtime pal Kyle Schwarber, who cut down Herrera at the plate for his third outfield assist of the year - and upon reaching the sixth inning for the first time this season finished strong.
“Schwarbs, he once again picks me up,” said Lester, Schwarber’s longtime teammate with the Cubs. “I was telling somebody in the clubhouse: I still don’t understand why teams run on him. I’ve seen it now for seven years, six years, whatever it is. He just continually throws guys out at home plate.”
In three outings so far for the Nationals, Lester now sports a 2.25 ERA, providing much-needed stability to a rotation that endured through a stretch of ragged starts in April.
And because of Lester’s efforts tonight, the Nats were in position to take the lead despite another sluggish opening five innings at the plate. This time, they made the most of it. Only to watch their closer cough it back up in the ninth and 10th.
Which made their manager believe it was time to gather everyone together for a pep talk.
“I saw a couple guys with their heads down, and I don’t want them to do that,” Martinez said. “If the effort wasn’t there, we would’ve had a whole different meeting. But the effort has been there. They’re trying really hard. I tell them all the time: Let’s just go out there and have fun. This will turn around. I know it will. We’re too good.”
Will that message resonate through a clubhouse full of veterans, many of whom have found themselves in this kind of position before?
“I think it was the right time,” Lester said. “Davey’s got a good feel. He’s been around for a long time. ... I thought it was a good message. I feel like the last however many days, we’ve played really good baseball. We just haven’t been on the good side of it yet. I feel like that’s kind of owed to us going forward. If we just keep playing good baseball, pitching well, the rest of the stuff will fall into place.”