Bullpen blowup follows Schwarber injury in painful loss (updated)

Max Scherzer walked off the mound after a scoreless top of the sixth, his pitch count an even 100, his Nationals holding a two-run lead on a night they were again missing Trea Turner, out with a finger injury, and then lost Kyle Schwarber to an apparent hamstring injury.

Upon reaching the dugout steps, he engaged in a brief conversation with Davey Martinez. A series of high-fives and fist bumps then commenced from the rest of the roster and coaching staff to the 36-year-old ace. He did not put up much, if any, argument to remain in the game and re-take the mound for the top of the seventh against a potent Dodgers lineup.

Scherzer, perhaps more than any other starter in the majors, goes into every outing with a plan, typically including a target number of pitches. And rarely will he exceed that number by much, especially at this stage of a long season. Clearly, he already knew he was done for the night before he reached the dugout and spoke with his manager.

“There’s a conversation to be had, but knowing I’ve got to make another start here in five days ... that’s where Davey decided that’s just enough,” Scherzer would say later on his Zoom session with reporters following a 10-5 loss. “I pitched enough. You live with that decision and move on. ... For me, it’s get 100 pitches, get out of there. That’s just the way it’s got to go.”

“It wasn’t really a whole lot of conversation,” Martinez added. “I know Max really well. We communicate really well. And he looked at me, he knew he had 100 pitches. He was done.”

But, boy, it would have been nice if he had been able to return for another inning. Because an injury-depleted Nationals bullpen didn’t come close to proving capable of protecting the lead he provided them, let alone even keeping the game within reach for their lineup to mount a potential comeback.

Voth-Follow-Through-White-Sidebar.jpgDuring an agonizing top of the seventh, Sam Clay, Austin Voth and Kyle Lobstein combined to give up nine runs, turning a 3-1 Nats lead into a 10-3 deficit and ultimately a loss that dropped them back to the .500 mark one day before the season reaches its official midpoint.

So it was that a gorgeous Friday evening on South Capitol Street turned into a horror show for the home club. First because of the Schwarber injury in the bottom of the second. Then because of the bullpen meltdown in the top of the seventh.

And just like that, a Nationals team that was flying high with 14 wins in 17 games lost its second straight to the defending World Series champions, who have looked the part through the first half of this four-game holiday weekend series.

An energetic crowd of 27,689 (second-largest of the season) was starting to get fired up while the Nationals scored three runs in the bottom of the second on hits by Starlin Castro and Yan Gomes, then a wild throwing error by Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner that brought two of the runs home and set the stage for Victor Robles to score from third on Humberto Arteaga’s sacrifice fly in the infielder’s first plate appearance since his promotion from Triple-A Rochester.

And everyone let out another cheer when Schwarber sent a single to right-center with two outs in the inning, only to gasp as he rounded first and immediately clutched the back of his upper right leg.

The conversation with Martinez and director of athletic training Paul Lessard didn’t last long. Schwarber walked alongside both men back to the dugout, limping noticeably and with a look of disgust on his face, fully recognizing the severity of this injury.

“For me, it was not really a decision. He was coming out,” Martinez said. “He wanted to stay in, and there was no way he could stay in. I talked to him (after the game) and he’s kind of calmed down a little bit. We’ll wait for the MRI and see what happens tomorrow, but he loves playing the game, he loves winning and he loves being out there helping his teammates and doing everything he can to help us win.”

Schwarber will undergo an MRI on Saturday morning to determine the severity of his hamstring strain. But based on the visual evidence tonight, a Nationals lineup that already was missing Trea Turner because of a jammed finger is now going to be without its slugging leadoff man and National League Player of the Month for some time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that lineup went limp after Schwarber’s early departure tonight, unable to produce a hit off Dodgers lefty Julio Urías from the third through the sixth inning.

That put added pressure on Scherzer to hold down Los Angeles’ lineup. Which he did, surrendering only a leadoff homer to Justin Turner in the top of the fourth. That was the last hit Scherzer allowed before finishing the top of the sixth and returning to the dugout for the aforementioned conversation with his manager.

“Where we were at that point in the (Dodgers) order, we thought we could turn it over to the bullpen,” he said. “I got through the heart of the lineup. To now try to sit there and say: Is it worth me going up to 110-115 at this point in time, at that part of the lineup, with everything in consideration? That’s where Davey said no. That’s why my day is done.”

If the Nationals were working with a fully stocked bullpen, the decision to pull Scherzer might’ve been simpler. But they’re not working with one, not even close, right now. Daniel Hudson, Kyle Finnegan, Tanner Rainey and Will Harris all currently reside on the injured list, and that has pressed the likes of Clay, Voth and others into high-leverage roles as Martinez tries to find a combination that can get the ball to closer Brad Hand.

Tonight, it all blew up in spectacular fashion. With a couple of left-handed hitters due up for the Dodgers, Martinez sent Clay to the mound to begin the seventh. But his counterpart, Dave Roberts, deployed perhaps the deepest bench in baseball right then and there. Roberts would wind up using four pinch-hitters in that inning alone, using up four-fifths of his bench in an attempt to ensure the best platoon matchups vs. Martinez’s bullpen.

“They can swing the bat from both sides, and then they can line-change,” Scherzer said. “So you’ve got a righty in, then they can line-change to lefties. That’s what makes them so good: their depth.”

And it worked to perfection. Clay retired only one of the four batters he faced, all of them right-handed. Voth didn’t retire any of the four batters he faced, two of them left-handed. And though Lobstein retired two of the four batters he faced, four runs still scored on his watch, two of them on A.J. Pollock’s home run to center that put a final stamp on the nine-run rally.

“I just didn’t have command,” Voth said. “I wasn’t throwing strikes. When that happens, things just kind of got out of hand. Just not the way I wanted to throw tonight.”

It was a painful reminder that for all the good that happened the last 2 1/2 weeks to get the Nationals back into contention, there remain plenty of problem areas. And they’re only growing as the injury count rises.

“We’ve got to stay positive,” Martinez said. “It’s a long season, I’ve always said that. We’ve been kind of down and out in the past and survived. And we’ll do it again.”

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