Davey Martinez’s day began with a follow-up question about his decision Saturday to use Brad Hand in the bottom of the ninth against the Yankees’ big right-handed bats. The Nationals manager explained why he believed his left-handed closer was his best option there, and would again be his best option with a game on the line, given his success against hitters from both sides of the plate.
“Brad has no issues against right-handers or left-handers,” Martinez said during his pregame Zoom session with reporters. “Yesterday, he just couldn’t find the strike zone. ... And he knows - I talked to him yesterday - if we get an opportunity for him to close again today, he’ll be in there again.”
So when the situation indeed presented itself again late this afternoon in the Bronx, Martinez didn’t hesitate to give the ball to Hand with everything on the line. And once again watched as his closer couldn’t deliver.
His command again wavering early, Hand walked the first two batters he faced to put himself in a jam. Then he gave up the game-winning hit to Giancarlo Stanton, who lined a single to left to bring Tyler Wade home from third and deal the Nationals a 3-2 loss to the Yankees that was every bit as frustrating as Saturday’s similar setback.
“I want in there every day,” said Hand, who wasn’t charged with an earned run in any of his first nine appearances this season but now has been scored upon on back-to-back days. “That’s why being a reliever is awesome: Once you have a bad one, you’re back in there the next day to try to right the ship. Obviously, today it didn’t go as planned. But the next game, we’ll get it right.”
On the heels of another strong start from Joe Ross, the Nationals turned it over late to a bullpen that had been brilliant for weeks before faltering during Saturday’s 11-inning loss. And once again, they were buoyed by a couple of arms few could’ve expected would be holding prominent roles back in spring training.
Sam Clay inherited a baserunner from Ross in the sixth and got out of it with a strikeout and a double play grounder. And Austin Voth navigated his way through two tough innings that required 42 pitches, rising to the occasion in his first crack at a high-leverage spot out of the bullpen.
But with their lineup unable to push across the go-ahead run, the Nationals were left to keep relying on their bullpen to keep the game going. Martinez could’ve gone with Daniel Hudson, who at one point earlier was warming in the ‘pen. But because Hand also had just warmed up in case the Nats took the lead in the top of the ninth, the manager felt this was his one and only chance to use his closer, even in a tie game on the road.
“He was going to come in if we took the lead, but we couldn’t sit him down once he warmed up,” Martinez said, citing Hand’s 29-pitch outing Saturday as reason not to let him warm up twice today. “He was coming in the game, tied or ahead. He threw a lot of pitches yesterday. Today, we had one shot to get him in there. So we got him in.”
Things immediately got squirrely. Hand walked both Wade and pinch-hitter Aaron Judge to open the inning, putting himself in a jam. He did get DJ LeMahieu to ground into a fielder’s choice - with Starlin Castro electing to throw to second to try to start a tough double play rather than simply step on third to retire the lead runner - but then took the loss when Stanton lined his 2-2 pitch to left for the walk-off winner.
“These past two days, I feel like I’ve really beat myself, giving up the free baserunners there to begin the inning,” Hand said. “It’s a tough one, the way the team fought back late in the game. Just can’t keep falling behind hitters like that.”
The game was undecided in the ninth thanks in large part to Ross, who found a way to be effective on this gray afternoon in the Bronx despite obvious struggles. He kept firing sinkers up and away to lefties. He walked four of the first 11 batters he faced. And yet, it was hard not to be satisfied with the overall results.
The Yankees manufactured only one run during Ross’ first five innings on the mound, turning a couple of walks and an Aaron Hicks single to center into a 1-0 lead. The right-hander was at his strongest after that, though, retiring eight of New York’s next nine batters, five via strikeout.
“Overall results were pretty good, but just getting behind, wasting way too many pitches, a lot of 3-2 counts,” Ross said. “I feel like when I’m at my best, I’m getting ahead, making it short (at-bats) with four or five pitches and attacking the zone. But I was just missing high a lot with the fastball and had to battle out of some situations with runners on.”
All of which left Martinez facing a tricky decision. With Ross’ pitch count at 90 and the deficit only at one run, would the Nationals manager send his starter back to the mound for the sixth?
The answer: He would. And the result was not what he had in mind. Ross quickly fell behind in the count, 2-0 to Gleyber Torres, then left a 92 mph sinker over the plate and watched as the struggling Yankees shortstop launched it 411 feet to left field for his first home run of the season.
“I tried to go in, it was just kind of flat in comparison to previous sinkers in the game,” Ross said of the home run pitch. “And 2-0, he’s probably looking heater, middle-in, and I kind of gave it to him right there.”
Ross’ afternoon would last only more four pitches, all of them balls to Gary Sánchez, and he departed with shoulders slumped after putting his team in a 2-0 hole. But it’s hard to argue he didn’t give his team a chance, and he was far less of a problem today than his teammates who couldn’t provide any run support.
With Juan Soto back in the designated hitter role in a planned move after he played right field Saturday for the first time since injuring his left shoulder, the Nationals weren’t able to field a lineup featuring both of their first basemen. Martinez opted to stick with the slumping Josh Bell over the far more productive Ryan Zimmerman, hoping Bell could find his stroke.
For much of the afternoon, Bell could not find it. With some awkward-looking swings and takes, he struck out in each of his first two at-bats, leaving him 0-for-11 with seven strikeouts since his towering home run to center field early in Friday’s series opener.
So it was that the Nats were shut down by Yankees starter Domingo Germán, who barely broke a sweat while tossing six innings of scoreless ball on 74 pitches.
But like Ross, German’s splendid afternoon was spoiled by a late blast. Bell opened the seventh with a double to left-center, a much-needed clean hit for the struggling slugger. And moments later, Kyle Schwarber delivered his third homer of the season. He hasn’t connected as often as he or the Nationals would like, but they’ve all been meaningful: two walk-off blasts in D.C. and now a game-tying two-run moonshot to right at Yankee Stadium.
“We need them to do that,” Martinez said. “We need them to drive in runs. Bell hits the double, Schwarber comes up and hits a bomb. They are a big part of our lineup. They start getting going, we start scoring runs.”
This Schwarbomb didn’t end a ballgame, but it brought the Nats back from the dead. The only question after that was whether they could fully resurrect themselves by game’s end.
They could not, and because it occurred in a familiar fashion, they could only leave town wondering what might have been.
“It’s tough to lose the game,” said Soto, who went 0-for-7 after homering in the ninth inning of Friday’s win. “We all want to win. I don’t mind if I’m going bad or good. If we win, we win. But those are the type of games that we’re fighting. It’s really tough for us.”