Breaking down the breakdowns in shocking loss

There’s still so much to process about Thursday night’s 9-8 loss in San Diego, a Nationals loss that can’t begin to be adequately explained merely through the final score.

Let’s try to delve into a few more aspects of this wackadoodle game at Petco Park, which at times defied explanation. ...

* Max Scherzer’s meltdown was as quick as it was shocking. It’s not just that he gave up seven runs in the bottom of the fourth. It’s that he gave up seven runs in the bottom of the fourth after looking absolutely electric in the first three innings.

“When he first got out there, I thought: Man, this is going to be a good night,” manager Davey Martinez said of his ace, who retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced, five via strikeout.

Scherzer-Firing-Blue-Sidebar.jpgScherzer was cruising, dominating a dangerous Padres lineup and bouncing off the mound after each well-placed pitch like a man who knew he was in complete control.

That’s what made the fourth inning so astonishing. He would retire only two of the nine batters he faced that inning, and during one especially egregious stretch he allowed three San Diego batters to reach either via hit-by-pitch or bases-loaded walk.

Yes, the grand slam by reliever Daniel Camarena - the first by a big league reliever since Don Robinson of the 1985 Pirates - was the biggest shock of all. But Scherzer was more peeved at the sequence that preceded it.

“I know a lot of attention is going to be made to the grand slam, and rightfully so,” he said. “But for me, the way I process that inning is that I had two strikes on some other batters there. Specifically, I wasn’t able to get (Manny) Machado out, wasn’t able to get (Eric) Hosmer out, wasn’t able to get Wil Myers out. Those are the at-bats that extend the inning and provide that opportunity.”

* Martinez’s decision to put Sam Clay on the mound for the bottom of the ninth instead of Brad Hand still reverberated well after the fact. The fourth-year manager explained it as “kind of a no-brainer,” insisting he wouldn’t use his closer in a tie game on the road, saving him instead for a potential save situation in extra innings.

“If we got the lead, Brad Hand’s coming in the game,” Martinez said. “If we were tied, it was Clay. For me, that’s kind of a no-brainer playing on the road. We were hoping Clay could get us through that inning, then we’d see what happened.”

What, though, were the odds of Clay getting through that inning without giving up the winning run? He was facing the top of the Padres lineup, with All-Stars Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jake Cronenworth guaranteed to bat and Machado ready to come up if anybody reached base.

To his credit, Clay got both Tatis and Cronenworth to ground out, but only after leadoff hitter Tommy Pham’s single to begin the rally. So that still put Pham at third base with two outs, representing the winning run. And after intentionally walking Machado, Clay surrendered the walk-off single to Trent Grisham on a 3-2 pitch.

“I knew that if I could attack in on Grisham, I could get him to pull the ball,” the rookie reliever said. “We were attacking him in all day and had some success. He’s a big league hitter, and he put a good swing on it and found a hole.”

Clay, a 28-year-old who became a free agent after seven years in the Twins’ system without getting a promotion to the majors, now owns a 4.97 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 36 games. He has shown an ability to induce ground balls at times, but he remains inexperienced and inconsistent.

Hand, meanwhile, has been lights-out for the better part of the season, aside from a short blip in early May when he blew two saves. Sure, the Nationals weren’t going to be able to win this game without needing someone to pitch in a save situation, and that’s why Martinez held him back.

But at the end of a wild affair that saw the Nats blow an eight-run lead yet still find themselves in position to win late, it was surprising to see their best reliever watch the end from the bullpen, not the mound.

* Win or lose, the Nationals lineup has become red-hot this week. They wound up scoring 34 runs in this four-game series, all of them scoring within the first 31 innings they played at Petco Park.

And they did it with Kyle Schwarber on the injured list, no small feat.

How’d they do it? With Trea Turner homering three times (twice on Thursday) and showing no ill effects of the jammed middle finger that sidelined him four games last weekend against the Dodgers. With Juan Soto continuing to reach base at an elite clip (go re-watch his outstanding ninth-inning plate appearance against Padres closer Mark Melancon) and starting to hit for some power. And with Josh Bell, Starlin Castro, Yan Gomes and Josh Harrison providing legitimate depth to the lineup and producing with runners on base at last.

Who would’ve thought a week ago we’d be more concerned about the Nationals pitching staff than their lineup?

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