Hand blows another save, Nats collapse in Philly (updated)

Whatever the rest of this week has in store, of one thing you can be sure: Davey Martinez is going to keep encouraging his Nationals to block out whatever trade deadline chatter they’re hearing and just concentrate on that night’s task.

“That message stands firm. I want them to focus on today,” the fourth-year manager said on Zoom prior to tonight’s series opener in Philadelphia. “Nobody knows what’s going to happen an hour from now, nevertheless tomorrow or the next day. We’ve got a game to play today, and we want to go 1-0 today against the Phillies.”

That, of course, is easier said than done for a club that arrived at Citizens Bank Park on a four-game losing streak, with a record eight games under .500 and eight games still separating them from the division-leading Mets.

How many of the 26 players in the dugout tonight will still be there come Friday night? And how could they not be thinking about that at least a little bit, certainly after what transpired in the bottom of the ninth for the second straight day, when Brad Hand dealt his team another devastating, walk-off loss, this one by a count of 6-5 on Andrew McCutchen’s three-run homer?

“Guys that have been around, this isn’t our first time around this time of season,” said Josh Harrison, who ranks high on the list of players most likely to be dealt this week. “It may be new for some guys, but the business is still the same. You’ve got to come ready to win a ballgame and let those things take care of themselves off the field.”

Winning a ballgame is proving especially difficult for the Nationals right now, and their closer has been most responsible for that. On Sunday in Baltimore, Hand’s blown save came via dinks and dunks, walks and hit batters. Tonight in Philly, it came on one big swing from McCutchen, who blasted his first-pitch fastball to right for the three-run homer that sealed the loss.

Hand never had control of the inning. He immediately got himself in trouble, surrendering a leadoff double to Jean Segura. After striking out J.T. Realmuto, he walked Bryce Harper, putting the tying runner on base and bringing the winning run to plate.

“Obviously, I’m not getting the job done,” said Hand, who now has five blown saves, five losses and a 3.67 ERA. “I can’t keep making mistakes like that in big situations.”

The biggest mistake was his first pitch to McCutchen, up in the zone instead of down. And the veteran outfielder drove it deep to right to set off a wild celebration for the home team, which now owns a winning record and is in a position to buy before Friday’s deadline, while the visitors trudged away in shock after their fifth straight loss, surely knowing by now what awaits at week’s end.

“I think we’re all professionals. We show up at the ballpark trying to win the game today,” said Hand, one of the team’s most sellable players, but on who has perhaps having just dramatically reduced his value over the last 48 hours. “What happens at the end of the day is out of our control. All we can do is try to win a ballgame today and try not to think about it. I don’t really try to think about it. I’ve been traded before. Whatever happens at the end of the day, it’s out of my decision.”

The Nationals were in position to win tonight thanks to a strong return to the active roster by Joe Ross, who alleviated concerns about his sore elbow by tossing five scoreless innings on 72 pitches. They were in position thanks to an opportunistic lineup that scored four runs during a two-out stretch in the top of the fourth, then what felt like an important insurance run in the top of the ninth.

And they were still in position in spite of the three-run homer Austin Voth served up in the sixth, thanks to a scoreless seventh from Kyle Finnegan and a scoreless eighth from Daniel Hudson.

But that wasn’t enough in the end, and so after all that the Nationals dropped a half-game to the Mets, who split a doubleheader with the Braves. They now sit nine games under .500 at 45-54. They still appear to be headed toward a trade deadline sell-off at the end of the week, barring a dramatic turn of events before then.

Ross-Fires-Gray-PHI-Sidebar.jpg“Tough losses - of course, the mood’s going to be a little dismal right now,” Martinez said. “But as I always tell these guys: You’ve got 30-45 minutes to think about the game. And after that, let it go.”

Whether it relates to their chances of success this year or next, Ross continues to be a prominent figure on the roster. So his return tonight from a three-week stint on the injured list with elbow inflammation was a positive development, no matter his team’s place in the standings.

Ross returned without having faced live hitters since his July 4 start against the Dodgers, throwing only off a bullpen mound a few times before his activation. So the Nationals were going to be careful with his workload tonight, not wanting to push him beyond his current reasonable limit.

But the way he was throwing, it sure was tempting to push it. Ross did get into a first-inning, bases-loaded jam - it was made possible in part by an uncharacteristically lazy play at first base by Josh Bell that allowed a hustling Realmuto to reach safely - but he escaped with a double play made possible by Juan Soto’s strong throw from right field to the plate to nab Segura.

And then Ross settled in and never found himself in serious trouble again the rest of his outing. He allowed only one more hit (to Spencer Howard, the opposing starter), issued an intentional walk to Harper and hit Segura with a pitch. But that was it.

Ross walked off the mound at the end of the fifth having posted nothing but zeroes, his pitch count at 72. It was the seventh time in 17 starts this season he didn’t allowed an earned run, and his ERA now stands at 3.80 (its lowest mark since early April).

“I felt very good,” he said. “I fatigued a little bit toward the end, which I was kind of expecting, not doing a rehab stint. But overall, I felt really good.”

And he departed with a 4-0 lead, thanks to one furious two-out rally by his teammates in the top of the fourth. Shut down by Spencer their first time through the order, the Nationals flipped the script the second time around. Five of the six batters who faced the young right-hander recorded hits off him, including back-to-back RBI triples by Bell and Harrison (the first time any pair had done that for this club since Jamey Carroll and Jose Vidro during the first road trip of the inaugural 2005 season).

Gerardo Parra ended Howard’s night with an RBI single, then Tres Barrera and Victor Robles greeted reliever Brandon Kintzler with two more singles, the last of which completed the four-run rally.

Now, though, Martinez found himself in an uncomfortable, yet familiar, situation. He wasn’t going to push his returning starter more than five innings, so he now needed four quality innings from a bullpen that hasn’t been deep enough to provide that on a regular basis this season.

And it once again proved not deep enough on this night, the latest in a painful stretch of them that is going to impact what the roster looks like moving forward.

“Losing in general, no one likes,” Ross said. “Losing on a walk-off, no one likes. Losing back-to-back games on walk-offs, even more tough.”

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