Defense, bounces don’t go Lester’s way in 10-4 loss (updated)

In an alternate universe, Jon Lester would have deserved a better fate. The ground balls he induced would have found gloves rather than grass, his fielders wouldn’t have betrayed him with clunky defense and he’d have been much more pitch-efficient.

Instead, Lester endured a death by a thousand cuts Saturday afternoon, when the Giants both hammered and doinked him with regularity, his defense contributed to five unearned runs on two errors and the southpaw departed after just 2 2/3 innings after throwing 80 mostly ineffective pitches in his second-shortest outing of the season.

A 10-4 loss to the National League West-leading Giants means the Nationals take a three-game losing streak into the final game of the first half on Sunday at Oracle Park. Washington is 2-8 this month and has fallen to four games under .500 at 42-46.

“It doesn’t matter who you’re playing - I think when you’re a little shorthanded, it’s tough to kind of compete each and every day with a shortened bench, shortened lineup and pitching staff as well,” shortstop Trea Turner said in his postgame Zoom chat with the media. “It’s part of the game; everyone’s got to deal with it. It seems like it’s hit us hard lately.”

Another short day by a starting pitcher puts more stress on an already overworked bullpen. Injuries continue to haunt the Nationals, who had to place catcher Yan Gomes on the injured list before the game with an oblique strain and now must trust two rookies to handle the catching chores.

Despite some significant career success against the Giants, Lester surrendered a 3-0 lead during a 29-pitch first inning in which he was undone by three infield singles and a costly error by left fielder Gerardo Parra that resulted in three unearned runs.

Lester-Throws-Blue-Wrigley-Sidebar.jpgWith one out, Wilmer Flores walked and went to second on a grounder to second that glanced off Alcides Escobar’s glove. Darrin Ruf then lofted a ball deep into left that Parra - playing without sunglasses - saw bounce off the webbing of his glove to load the bases. A single to left by Donovan Solano and Brandon Crawford’s sac fly to the wall in left plated two runs, and Joey Bart’s single off Lester’s glove loaded the sacks again. Thairo Estrada followed with a dribbler down the third base line that plated Ruf to make it 3-0.

“We didn’t play very good today, all around,” Martinez said.

Lester’s issues continued into the third after a tidy 1-2-3 second that required just 12 pitches. Ruf doubled, Solano reached on an error by third baseman Starlin Castro and Crawford singled home a run. Bart drove in Solano with a single to right-center and Estrada plated another run with a swinging bunt to extend the lead to 6-0. Pitcher Anthony DeSclafani bunted the runners up a base for the inning’s first out. Austin Slater singled home Bart and Flores drew a walk to load the bases. Mike Yastrzemski’s sac fly to center field plated the eighth Giants run and ended Lester’s misery after 80 pitches and just eight outs.

“It was tough, but his pitch count got way up there,” said manager Davey Martinez. “We had to do something.”

The Giants went 9-for-16 against Lester, whose ERA only rose from 5.34 to 5.54 because two Nationals errors contributed to five unearned runs. Lester walked two and struck out one. But he failed to control the bleeding with runners in scoring position, where the Giants went 7-for-9 against him.

“I’m a more contact guy than I used to be and I can go for that strikeout when I need it,” Lester said. “Right now, obviously I don’t have that so you’re relying more on guys hopefully hitting the ball at people. With that being said, going back to today, I feel like I stayed away from some barrels and just found holes. That’s kind of the bad part of when you don’t have swing-and-miss stuff anymore: You run the risk of those things happening.”

But he wasn’t rewarded for the weak contact he induced.

“It doesn’t matter how hard they hit it - it’s still hits, still runs,” Lester said. “Kinda the same song and dance as the last couple here. Maybe a little reset button and get ready for the second half.”

But no matter what Lester threw - four-seamer, changeup, cutter, sinker - the Giants seemed to get just enough wood on the pitch or place some weak contact perfectly.

“Pretty bad stretch right now,” he said. “Seems like I can’t minimize the bad. The frustrating part is I’m OK with the hits and the runs, that sort of thing, but ... two and something, three and something innings is just, like I’ve said before, putting the team in a bad position. I mean, you always try to find some positives in there, try to go back and watch starts that were positive, but I mean at the end of the day you gotta figure out a way to have results.”

Lester’s poor results are leading to a rise in his frustration level, the manager said.

“He’s definitely frustrated,” Martinez said. “But like I say, he’s a veteran guy and I believe in him. We all believe in him.”

Martinez thought his starter deserved a better fate.

“I think so,” Martinez said. “They didn’t hit the ball very hard off him. ... He didn’t walk as many guys today, but when he fell behind and you have to throw strikes, those things do happen. I’ve seen Jon Lester a lot sharper. He wasn’t as sharp today, but once again, they didn’t hit the ball very hard off him. They had one ball, the Ruf hit, that was really hit hard - sharp - to right-center field. Other than that, a bunch of infield hits, a bunch of balls that our outfielders can’t get to.”

While the left-hander was struggling to record outs - or get any fortuitous bounces - the Giants were throttling the Nats behind righty DeSclafani, who seems to save his best for the guys with curly Ws on their hats. He followed up a complete-game shutout at Nationals Park on June 11 with a three-hitter over seven shutout frames. DeSclafani walked one and struck out six.

“He’s had his way with everybody,” Turner said of DeSclafani. “He’s got a (2.68) ERA for a reason. He’s got four pitches, he’s got the velocity, good fastball. I think that’s what a lot of good starters have is a good fastball, and he uses it both sides of the plate. It’s a battle facing him, but you just got to tip your cap to guys like that.”

The Nationals got a runner to scoring position in the first inning when Turner singled and advanced to second on a wild pitch before being stranded. But that was the last time a National reached second base until the fourth, when Victor Robles was hit on the elbow guard (the 11th time he’s been plunked this year) and moved to second on Ryne Harper’s sacrifice in his first career plate appearance.

Crawford’s fly ball to center field off Kyle McGowin carried over the wall in center for a solo homer, the shortstop’s 18th of the season, that gave the Giants a 9-0 cushion.

Two batters later, with a 1-1 count on Estrada, McGowin was removed for an apparent injury, with Jefry Rodriguez taking over on the mound. After the game, Martinez sounded confident that McGowin was only experiencing “a little fatigue” and that he wouldn’t become the 11th Nationals player currently on the IL. The manager said McGowin was being evaluated by the team’s training staff to determine the extent of his injury.

In the seventh against reliever Tyler Beede, Parra led off with a single, Tres Barrera was hit by a pitch and Escobar’s triple to right field scored both. Escobar crossed on Beede’s wild pitch, cutting the deficit to 9-3. The Giants’ lead grew to 10-3 in the eighth when Rodriguez walked the bases loaded and yielded a run-scoring single to Estrada.

Pinch-hitting for Barrera in the ninth, Jakson Reetz collected a double to right-center in his first major league at-bat. After moving to third on a Robles single, Reetz scored on Josh Harrison’s fielder’s choice grounder.

“It’s awesome for (Reetz). We didn’t get him until the game started,” Martinez said. “He came out to the dugout, saw him and it was a perfect opportunity just to give him an at-bat.”

Martinez isn’t sure how long the Nationals will be without Gomes, but sounded like he was preparing for a lengthy absence.

“Those oblique strains, you don’t know how long it’s going to take,” Martinez said. “So hopefully, we’ll get him back (soon). Right now, it’s a perfect opportunity for him. It stinks that he’s hurt, but we have the All-Star break, he’ll rest and then we’ll start rehabbing him when he gets back.”

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