Hand coughs up lead in ninth, Nats are swept by O’s (updated)

Caught in a bad riddle with no easy answer, the Nationals can’t seem to decide whether they’re struggling more to keep opposing hitters at bay or whether their sagging offense is putting additional unnecessary pressure on a pitching staff that’s been stretched thin.

Actually both are intertwined, and one swing of Ryan Zimmerman’s bat almost proved enough to save the Nats from a sweep and momentarily end the debate and halt a three-game skid. Zimmerman hit a go-ahead three-run homer and drove in four runs, but Brad Hand couldn’t hold a ninth-inning lead as the Orioles won 5-4 to complete a weekend sweep on Sunday afternoon.

“Every loss is tough, but this one is tough,” manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “You give the ball to your closer in the ninth inning, you don’t expect that to happen. It was a tough one.”

With five days to go before the July 30 trade deadline, the Nats are 45-53 and in fourth place in the National League East, though still within striking distance of the first-place Mets if they can get hot in a hurry. If the hope was to use this weekend interleague series to entice general manager Mike Rizzo to add to the roster for the stretch run, Washington still has ample work to do.

And on a day when the offense - well, at least Zimmerman - came to life, Martinez faced a new dilemma: a closer that self-destructed when his team’s season is hanging by a thread.

“You know what? We gotta put it behind us,” Martinez said. “What we need to do right now - this is a tough time of year for players, I can tell you. Everybody’s worried about getting traded, everybody’s hearing rumors. We need to focus on staying (in the) present. That’s what we need to do. ... Can’t do nothing about these three losses. Gotta come back tomorrow and play a team in our division, the Phillies, and we gotta come back and try to win that first game tomorrow.”

Handed a one-run lead in the ninth, Hand got into immediate difficulty, hitting Maikel Franco with an 0-2 breaking pitch. Ryan McKenna singled, pinch-hitter Austin Hays walked and Pat Valaika tied the game with a sac fly to right field. Pinch-hitter Ramón Urías grounded to third, but McKenna sprinted home to beat Carter Kieboom’s throw to the plate on the fielder’s choice, a play upheld by video review.

Hand-Delivers-Gray-BAL-Sidebar.jpg“You don’t want to lead off hitting the guy (and) I was ahead of him 0-2,” Hand said. “Slider got away from me, was trying to bury one there. I felt like four pitches into the inning, I was into a first-and-third, nobody-out situation that I wasn’t able to get out of.”

Hand said he can do nothing more than pack the frustration of a disheartening loss and a weekend sweep into his equipment bag and head to Philadelphia to try to right the ship.

“Every loss hurts, but we know where we’re at,” he said. “We know we need to win ballgames now. The offense did a good job to come back and put up some runs. You know, it definitely stinks, for sure.”

As one of the veteran Nationals whose names are circulating in trade rumors - should Rizzo decide to sell off and look ahead - Hand is in familiar territory. He’s got one eye on the present, but can’t help but wonder what the future holds.

“I don’t think it really affects us,” Hand said. “We’re all professionals and we all show up to do our job. For me personally, I’ve been through the trade talks before and I have been traded. Every day you come here, you’re a National and you gotta prepare to win that game today. I think we all know the situation that we’re in, but we’re fighting to get wins and trying to play out this last week and get as many wins as we can.”

Right-hander Paolo Espino didn’t pitch badly, but the three solo homers the Nationals starter gave up on an 88-degree afternoon in a ballpark that favors hitters in warm weather put the Nats in an early hole.

“I feel that I pitched good, just a couple mistakes, a few bad locations,” Espino said. “Maybe a couple. Maybe bad decisions on pitches.”

Add to that the fact that the Nats’ aggressive approach at the plate played right into the left arm of Orioles starter John Means, who was happy to challenge them, induce contact and keep his fielders busy.

Even when the Nats made Means work, he prevailed. And once the lefty escaped a first-inning jam, he wasn’t seriously threatened until Zimmerman erased the Orioles’ 3-1 lead in the sixth.

Alcides Escobar was hit by a pitch and Trea Turner singled to left-center on a ball that ate up shortstop Valaika. After Juan Soto skied to center on a broken-bat swing and Josh Bell struck out swinging on a 3-2 fastball, Zimmerman ended the drought with one swing. He connected on a 1-0 four-seamer that sailed over the wall in center for a 4-3 Nationals lead.

Zimmerman’s homer aside, the Nationals were 2-for-23 with runners in scoring position during the weekend sweep, and that’s something that needs to be fixed.

“In those situations, we kinda gotta look for the ball up and (not) chase a lot of bad breaking balls,” Martinez said. “We gotta get the ball up in the strike zone and stay in the middle of the field - and hit the balls that are in the strike zone. ... We’ve done it before, we’ve scored a bunch of runs before we got to this series and it just went away. So we gotta get back to that.”

Espino worked five innings and gave up three runs on five hits with a walk and a career-best six strikeouts. From there, Martinez turned the game over to the Nationals bullpen.

Kyle Finnegan got five outs, working around a two-out single by DJ Stewart in the sixth and issuing a one-out walk to Domingo Leyba in the seventh. Daniel Hudson got Austin Wynns looking at a third strike to end the seventh, then had to sit while the Orioles bullpen needed 30 pitches to get through the top of the eighth unscathed.

When Hudson returned to face the Orioles in the bottom of the frame, he wasn’t sharp. Singles by Cedric Mullins and Trey Mancini put runners on first and second with no outs. But Hudson got Ryan Mountcastle to ground into a 4-6-3 double play and got Stewart swinging at a 3-2 heater to strand the tying run at third base.

Early on, it looked like the offensive woes would again torment the Nats, who loaded the bases with no outs in the first against Means but came away with only one run for a short-lived 1-0 lead. Escobar was grazed with a pitch, Turner singled to center and Soto walked before Zimmerman grounded into a one-out, run-scoring fielder’s choice.

The lead only lasted until the bottom of the inning, when Espino served up an 89 mph two-seamer on a 2-0 count that Mancini deposited into the left field stands for his 19th homer.

Espino served up another solo blast in the second when Franco jumped on a 3-2 breaking ball and socked it out to left field. Franco thought he had walked, but took a called second strike before his 10th homer of the season.

In the Baltimore fourth, McKenna took Espino deep for a 3-0 lead. His first major league homer came off a 91 mph four-seamer that cleared the wall in right-center beyond Victor Robles’ leap.

While the Orioles were padding their lead, Means was shutting down the Nats in pitch-efficient fashion. He gave up a single to Bell leading off the fourth, but Bell was quickly erased when Zimmerman grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. Means retired 14 of 15 after loading the bases to open the game. The southpaw needed only four pitches to get the Nats in order in the fifth.

After dropping four in a row at a critical juncture of the season, the Nats’ collective mettle is being severely tested.

“I try not to put too much pressure on myself,” Espino said. “It’s already tough. Pitching in the big leagues is already tough. I try to minimize the stuff I gotta think about.”

As the clock ticks toward the trade deadline, shutting out the distractions becomes increasingly difficult. Calmness would be welcome, but is that even an option at this point?

“Go out there, play baseball and have fun,” Martinez said. “They’ve done it before. They understand the game. Hey, take care of the little things. Little things matter in the game. The walks, our at-bats with runners in scoring position. Take care of those things and you’ll be surprised at how quick we can turn this around. I’ve seen it before, we’ve done it before. And don’t worry about the past. Like I said, let’s focus on the here and now and move forward.”

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