Though Davey Martinez may rely on a “Go 1-0 every day” mantra, the unspoken subtext of the Nationals manager’s repetitive refrain is that his team must take care of business by asserting itself against weaker competition.
Seeking to prove to general manager Mike Rizzo that they are contenders instead of pretenders, the Nats came to Camden Yards hoping to have their way with an inferior Orioles club in a weekend interleague series.
Suffice it to say that it hasn’t quite worked out as the Nationals had hoped.
After scratching scheduled starting pitcher Max Scherzer with mild soreness in his right triceps, the Nationals sent replacement hurler Jon Lester to the mound in a stadium where he’d dominated as a longtime member of the Red Sox.
Lester didn’t fare badly Saturday night, but he was outpitched by Matt Harvey, who looked a lot like The Dark Knight Nats fans remember from his early career success with the Mets.
Harvey, who toted an ugly 7.13 ERA into the game, worked six scoreless innings and Lester surrendered solo homers to Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle in a 5-3 Orioles win that left the Nats with a 45-52 record.
“We came in hoping to win two out of three. Now (we try to) come put tomorrow and win a game tomorrow and go from there,” Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “Like I said, we still got a lot of baseball left, we really do. Our offense needs to get it going again. We were swinging the bats so well, and now all of a sudden, we’re not. So we gotta get back to staying in the middle of the field, getting ready early and trying not to do too much. Just hit line drives in gaps and try not to do a whole lot.”
Since tallying 18 runs in a rout of the Marlins on Monday, the Nats have scored 11 runs in four games - hardly the stuff of an offense that seemed on the verge of busting loose.
“Hitting is really weird,” Martinez said. “As we all know, hitting comes and goes. It really does. But you can’t force it; you gotta just let it happen. Like I said, you gotta know who you are as a hitter and your approach has to be the same regardless of who you’re hitting (against). You gotta know the pitcher. With that being said, these guys were doing so well, staying on the ball, hitting the ball the other way, driving the ball in the gaps, getting homers - just because we were doing the little things, and we need to get back to that as a group.”
Instead of again jump-starting their season before a stretch of 17 of 20 games against National League East teams they are staring up at in the standings, the Nats take an ill-timed three-game losing streak into Sunday’s series finale before four games against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
Lester did his best to be pitch-efficient and not fall prey to the bandbox that Camden Yards becomes during warm summer nights. But the lefty couldn’t bring the hammer down on the Orioles twice after getting the first two outs of an inning.
“A little weird,” Lester said. “I feel like I threw the ball pretty well with just no results. Usually, solo homers don’t beat you, and they beat me tonight.”
Lester looked like he might breeze through a 1-2-3 bottom of the first, getting two quick outs before Mancini ambushed him, crushing a first-pitch four-seam fastball over the wall in left-center for a solo homer and a 1-0 Orioles lead.
Mancini’s blast was the only Orioles hit for the first three innings, while the Nationals were throttled by Harvey, who retired the first 10 hitters before Trea Turner’s one-out double off the scoreboard in right field but was stranded. Harvey got a lot of weak contact by jamming Nats batters with inside pitches.
With two down in the fourth, Lester’s 2-1 cutter to Mountcastle flattened out and wound up sailing over the wall in center. It was the second homer of the season for Mountcastle off Lester, who yielded a grand slam to the slugger in D.C. on May 22 in a 12-9 Nats win.
“I thought he threw the ball well. He gave up two solo homers, but he kept us in the game,” Martinez said of Lester. “Once again, our offense today was not there. I thought we were gonna break out late in the game, but it just wasn’t there early.”
Harvey got 11 groundball outs and fanned four through the first six innings on 83 pitches, a nine-pitch at-bat to Alcides Escobar to end the sixth inflating the count.
Lester departed after allowing Cedric Mullins’ leadoff double in the bottom of the sixth. The lefty was charged with three runs on three hits through five-plus frames, walking one and striking out two.
Never mind that he was pressed into service in place of Scherzer instead of enjoying an extra day of rest during the season’s dog days. Lester took the loss hard - and personally.
“As a starting pitcher, I think sometimes you gotta be selfish for your day,” he said. “Your day, I’ve always believed that ... the most important day of the season is the day you pitch. I’ve just always kinda looked at it that way, so I try to prepare that way. A lot of times, you can’t control what’s going on around you - like with Scherz going to where he couldn’t go today. Luckily, we had the extra day there. You kinda have to make moves on the fly - adjust. Kinda what you do through a long season is just try to figure it out. Guys bounce around a little bit and you try to do your best when that day comes.”
Austin Voth relieved Lester and was greeted by Austin Hays’ RBI double into the right field corner. Mancini’s bloop single to short right-center put runners at the corners and a walk to Mountcastle loaded the bases. Voth caught Ramón Urías looking at a third strike, but Pedro Severino singled to left to make it 4-0. Maikel Franco then plated Mancini with a sacrifice fly to right.
Harvey was done after six scoreless one-hit innings with no walks and four strikeouts. Adam Plutko came in and the second batter he faced, Juan Soto, ripped an opposite-field solo homer to left.
Turner said Harvey went back to the basics to confound the Nationals hitters.
“I think he just threw a lot of strikes,” Turner said. “I didn’t necessarily see every pitch he threw to everybody, but I felt like he had no walks after five or six innings. He was throwing four pitches - throwing two breaking balls and a changeup. Got two heaters also, a sinker and a four-seamer. Just throwing a lot of pitches in the zone and getting some weak contact. You know, we hit some balls well, but they were right at people.”
The Nationals’ one prolonged rally came while they were trying to chip away at a four-run deficit with six outs to spare.
Josh Harrison led off the eighth with a liner to left for a double, extending his hitting streak to eight games, and Tanner Scott replaced Plutko. Struggling to command his slider, Scott clipped pinch-hitter Carter Kieboom on his right foot, then hit Tres Barrera on the top of the right foot to load the bases. Pinch-hitter Victor Robles was caught looking at a 3-2 slider at the outer reaches of the strike zone and Escobar went down swinging on a 97 mph four-seamer before Turner singled home two runs to trim the lead to 5-3. Soto fouled out to the catcher to end the threat.
The few times they had runners in scoring position, the Nats couldn’t capitalize on the opportunities.
“When they hit two batters, you gotta make them pay for kind of giving you a freebie,” Turner said. “It’s one thing if you hit homers or string four or five hits together, but when they give you those walks or hit-by-pitches, you take advantage. We did that, but we just fell a little short tonight.”