Kyle Schwarber tried to act like a traditional leadoff hitter in the third inning of tonight’s series opener on South Capitol Street, attempting to use his legs to take an extra base that wasn’t there for the taking and paying the price for it.
So when the opportunity to make a difference in this game came four innings later, Schwarber decided he’d be better off doing it the best way he knows how: by hitting the ball a long way and making the trip around the bases risk-free.
Schwarber’s seventh-inning home run off reliever Clay Holmes lifted the Nationals to a 3-2 victory over the Pirates and added to his growing legend as the unconventional leadoff man who just hits homers.
It was the burly left fielder’s fourth homer in three days, all of them coming as his team’s leadoff hitter, manager Davey Martinez’s attempt to inject some instant offense into a team that has sorely needed it. And this one was needed as much as any, because it broke a tie in the late innings and put his team in position to win.
“That’s definitely a good spot to hit them,” Schwarber said during a postgame Zoom session with reporters. “Yeah, the leadoff spot, whatever. I think more just trying to get hits in a timely manner, knowing that they’re not always going to come. That’s just the nature of the beast of this game.”
Schwarber’s team-leading 13th homer of the season couldn’t make a winner out of longtime teammate and buddy Jon Lester, who pitched well enough to earn the W he’s been seeking all year. But it did put the Nationals in position to win for the third time in four games, if their bullpen could protect the late one-run lead.
That group, recently reconfigured after Daniel Hudson landed on the 10-day injured list with elbow inflammation, did get the job done. Kyle Finnegan struck out a pair with a runner on first in the top of the seventh. Tanner Rainey put up a zero in the eighth thanks in part to a nifty 5-4-3 double play started by Starlin Castro. And Brad Hand pitched a scoreless ninth for his 12th save, his ninth conversion in a row after back-to-back blown saves last month.
“As we all know, he had a couple rough ones. But he’s been so good at the back of the bullpen,” manager Davey Martinez said of Hand, who over his last 10 outings has held opponents to a .438 OPS. “These guys continue to pitch well. And when we get Huddy back, we’re going to be in good shape.”
Unlike the weekend series against the Giants, there were no early Schwarbombs in this one. There was, however, a key RBI single by the new leadoff man in the bottom of the third when he lined a pitch into right field to score Victor Robles from third.
The Nationals would add another run two batters later when Juan Soto poked a single through the open hole at shortstop to score Trea Turner from second, but Turner only found himself in scoring position because of the out Schwarber made at third base moments earlier on his single to center. Schwarber was prepared to stop at second on the hit, but when he saw Bryan Reynolds bobble the ball, he turned it back on and tried to reach third. No dice, because Reynolds recovered quickly and threw him out.
“I’m going into second base, and I’m coming in hard,” Schwarber said. “And I’m slowing down, because you think he’s going to make the clean catch. And then you see the bobble. As soon as I saw the (misplay), I’m going to third. And if I had to do it again, I’m doing it over and over and over and over again. I’m going to take my chance.”
His manager concurred.
“The guy made a heck of a play,” Martinez said of Reynolds. “The ball came back, but he threw it right on the money. I thought it was a good play at that point.”
Turner’s ability to take second on the throw to third salvaged the unforced baserunning error somewhat, but the Nats still squandered what could’ve been a big inning and managed only two runs. Two runs they would attempt to make hold up for most of the night.
Lester did put his team in an early 1-0 hole when he served up a solo homer to Kevin Newman in the top of the second. The veteran lefty, though, wound up doing what he has done most times he’s pitched this season: Put runners on base, but let few of them score.
The Pirates stranded runners in scoring position in the second, third and fourth innings, failing to tie the game but driving up Lester’s pitch count. Even so, he got through a 1-2-3 top of the fifth quickly and with a manageable pitch count of 78, so Martinez let his starter bat for himself in the bottom of the inning and retake the mound for the sixth.
“I don’t know what it is about here recently, or I guess it’s just this year, but the old 1-2-3 inning has been kind of elusive for me this year,” he said, “whether I put myself into it with a walk, or just giving up a hit. That one really kind of put me back into it. ... That was huge, to just kind of get me back to neutral there.”
Lester would face only two batters in the sixth. He allowed a leadoff double to Jacob Stallings on a line drive to center that Robles misread off the bat and couldn’t haul in by the time he recovered. And after a sharp lineout to short, Martinez walked to the mound, took the ball from Lester and handed it to Wander Suero, entrusting the reliever to strand the tying run on second.
That run would come around to score, thanks to Newman’s single to center and Erik González’s sacrifice fly to medium-deep right. Soto had a chance to make the play close, but his throw to the plate was well offline, and Stallings scored with ease to make it a 2-2 game, deny Lester his first win of the season and ensure this one would be decided late.
The veteran starter wasn’t complaining about his 0-2 record despite a respectable 4.09 ERA in nine starts. Especially when his good buddy provided the late home run that ensured the only win that truly mattered tonight.
“As long as we win the game,” Lester said, “I really don’t care.”