Overmatched Nats suffer four-game sweep to Dodgers (updated)

You can analyze this four-game sweep at the hands of the defending World Series champions until your face turns blue, but it really boils down to a simple fact: The Dodgers had 26 healthy and versatile players whom their manager trusted to be used over the course of a ballgame, and the Nationals did not.

Over the course of a difficult holiday weekend on South Capitol Street, capped by a 5-1 loss before an Independence Day crowd of 37,187, Dave Roberts consistently utilized every player from his deep and talented roster to perfection. His counterpart, Davey Martinez, was working with a depleted roster that never included 26 available players, not to mention a lineup and bullpen littered with recent additions and a lack of significant experience.

Is it any wonder this series produced a four-game sweep, knocking the previously resurgent Nats from two games over the .500 mark to two games under it as they now head west for seven games in seven days against the contending Padres and Giants before the All-Star break mercifully arrives?

“It’s unfortunate we have so many injuries,” Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “But in this game, it happens. We’ve got to keep going, got to keep battling. We’ve got to find a way, kind of will it some days. We’ll show up in San Diego tomorrow and we’ll compete again.”

You can nitpick some of Martinez’s in-game choices, whether twice sending up Jon Lester to pinch-hit (the same number of times Roberts pinch-hit with future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols) or summoning closer Brad Hand from the bullpen with two outs in the seventh and his team trailing by a run. But you can’t do so without first acknowledging the diminished hand he was playing with all weekend.

Escobar-Swings-White-Sidebar.jpgA spate of injuries to the likes of Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner, Alex Avila, Jordy Mercer and now possibly Yan Gomes (who didn’t catch today after getting hit by a pitch on his right arm Saturday night) left Martinez to field a lineup this morning that included Starlin Castro as his No. 3 hitter, Yadiel Hernandez and Alcides Escobar as his No. 5 and No. 6 hitters, and Tres Barrera as his starting catcher.

And the recent injuries of Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey and Kyle Finnegan left Martinez with a bullpen that included only one late-inning reliever he trusted: Hand. Which is why the closer was brought in to face the left-handed Max Muncy with two outs in the seventh and the Nationals trailing 2-1, a desperate attempt by the manager to keep the game as close as possible and hope his troops could muster a late rally.

They couldn’t, scoring only one run off the eight Los Angeles relievers who pitched today after originally scheduled starter Trevor Bauer was placed on administrative leave by Major League Baseball, which is investigating an allegation of assault. Again, a display of unmatched depth by the Dodgers the Nationals could only dream of possessing right now.

“It’s kind of tough seeing pitchers go down, obviously Schwarber having the hottest month of all time going down,” right-hander Joe Ross said. “But, you know, you’ve just got to have that kind of mentality to compete. Next guy up. Come out and make a play.”

Ross did everything in his power today to give his teammates a chance with another stellar outing that included 11 strikeouts, his most since 2017, over 6 2/3 innings.

The rest of the roster may have been sleep-deprived taking the field less than 11 hours after Saturday night’s rain-delayed loss ended, but Ross took the mound with vim and vigor, having been able to go home early and rest up for this 11:05 a.m. holiday special.

Ross showed it immediately, pumping out a host of 97 mph fastballs, the hardest he’s thrown a pitch since 2016. And when he struck out five of the first six Dodgers batters he faced, the right-hander looked like he meant business today.

“I just think I was a little more amped up than usual,” Ross said. “I’ve been feeling pretty good the last couple games. I’ve been (throwing) 95-96-ish. So I think that probably took it over the top there.”

He did make a mistake to Matt Beaty (batting third so Justin Turner could have a day off) in the top of the fourth, grooving a fastball over the plate that was driven 401 feet to left-center for a solo homer. And then, with Martinez trying to squeeze everything he could out of his starter to avoid using the eight relievers in his bullpen besides Hand he does not trust as much as he wishes he could, Ross gave up a pair of hits in the top of the seventh, including Pujols’ fourth RBI of the series (one for each game).

That brought the manager to the mound to make what on the surface looked like a shocking move but under the circumstances made complete sense. In trotted Hand, his closer, with his team trailing 2-1 in the seventh. Why? Because to bring anyone else in at that moment would’ve increased the likelihood of the Dodgers extending the lead even more.

“That was definitely the right spot for him,” Martinez said. “We’re trying to keep the game close. He hasn’t pitched in five days. We talked to Brad, and you might see more of that with us as soon as we get some of these other guys back. And he’s OK with it. He has no issues with it. Playing some of these really good teams, with some of these really good hitters, we’re going to have to be a little more creative.”

In the end, the move didn’t work because Muncy doubled to the gap off Hand, extending the lead to 3-1. But the logic behind it - and the message it sent - was unmistakable.

“That was the best matchup for us, to try to hold it right there, and see if we could come back and score some runs,” Martinez said. “It just didn’t happen. We couldn’t score any runs.”

Indeed, if anyone still needed to understand why the Nationals were just swept over the weekend, here’s one final bit of evidence that tells the story in full. The combined score of the first through fourth innings in this series was Nats 9, Dodgers 6. The combined score of fifth through ninth innings was Dodgers 20, Nats 2.

“It was a tough weekend, but all in all, we started off really well. We finished 3-4 in the homestand,” Martinez said. “We’ve just got to keep playing, keep our heads up. We’re getting on a flight, going cross country, and getting ready to play another team. We’ve just got to keep battling.”

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