They led by eight runs after 3 1/2 innings, with Max Scherzer cruising and looking very much like he wanted to make a definitive statement about his exclusion from the All-Star Game roster for the first time since 2012.
How that somehow turned into a one-run lead 10 batters into the worst nightmare of a fourth inning Scherzer or anyone else on the Nationals could ever have dreamed up, a nightmare that included the first grand slam by a relief pitcher in the major leagues since 1985, defied logic.
And when this wacky 9-8 loss to the Padres ended two hours later with Sam Clay giving up a walk-off single to Trent Grisham with two outs in the bottom of the ninth while Brad Hand watched from the bullpen in case the game reached extra innings, the only question that came to mind was: What just happened?
“Uncharacteristic,” manager Davey Martinez said of Scherzer’s fourth-inning meltdown in a Zoom session with reporters that commenced only minutes after the winning run crossed the plate. “I mean, I’ve never seen him like that.”
It’s not the biggest blown lead in Nationals history. That came on July 21, 2012, when the Braves came back from a 9-0 deficit to beat a team that still went on to win 98 games and its first division title. But it certainly stings as much as any loss this franchise has suffered in a while, because most of the comeback occurred with the best pitcher in club history on the mound.
And because the biggest blow of all off Scherzer during the fateful, seven-run bottom of the fourth came from Daniel Camarena, the previously unheralded left-hander who made everyone learn his name thanks to one of the unlikeliest grand slams in modern history. His bases-clearing blast off Scherzer was the first by a major league reliever since Don Robinson on Sept. 12, 1985.
“I threw a pitch, he put a swing on it, hit a home run,” the three-time Cy Young Award winner said. “Just turn the page and move on.”
That stunning home run, though, only brought the Padres to within two runs. They would eventually tie the game in the sixth, then win it in the ninth off Clay, summoned to pitch in a tie game instead of Hand, who Martinez was saving for a potential save situation in extra innings.
“If we got the lead, Brad Hand’s coming in the game,” the manager said. “If we were tied, it was Clay. For me, that’s kind of a no-brainer playing on the road. We were hoping Clay could get us through that inning, then we’d see what happened.”
Clay, though, had to face the top of the San Diego lineup, and he immediately got into trouble, allowing a leadoff single to Tommy Pham. A couple of ground balls moved Pham to third base but left the rookie reliever on the verge of escaping the inning. But Grisham - remembered by Nationals fans for his error on Juan Soto’s bases-loaded single off Josh Hader in the 2019 National League wild card game - lined a 3-2 pitch to right for the hit that sent Petco Park into pandemonium and left the Nats in shock.
“I’m just glad Davey and (pitching coach Jim) Hickey had the confidence in me to come into that type of situation,” Clay said. “You try to build that trust, and unfortunately it didn’t work out this time. But I know it will in the future.”
Prior to all of that, a game that saw 15 runs scored by the end of the fourth saw both bullpens take back control. The Nationals couldn’t muster anything from the fifth through the ninth innings. The Padres did plate the tying run in the sixth off Wander Suero, but couldn’t touch Austin Voth in the seventh or Daniel Hudson (making his return from a month on the injured list) in the eighth.
The Nationals could not have scripted the first three innings any better. What more could Martinez reasonably have asked from his team to that point?
Then they scored three more off Darvish in the top of the third, getting an RBI double from Josh Bell, a laser of a sacrifice lineout to center from Starlin Castro and a two-out RBI single from Josh Harrison.
And then, after knocking out the Padres’ All-Star starter early, they got another home run from Turner (this one with Alcides Escobar on base) in the top of the fourth to make it 8-0 and continue a torrid series that saw them score 34 runs in their first 31 innings in San Diego this week.
Then add in the fact Scherzer was lights-out to that point, retiring nine of the 10 batters he faced through three scoreless innings on 46 pitches, striking out five and clearly outpitching an opponent who was selected by fellow players for the All-Star team over him.
How could this possibly result in anything but a happy ending? Well, may we introduce you to the bottom of the fourth?
“I felt command with all my pitches,” Scherzer said. “I was executing. And then I ran into a buzz saw there.”
It started off poorly for the ace, who served up a leadoff homer to Fernando Tatis Jr. It got worse as the ace seemed to lose all semblance of command through a four-batter stretch that included two batters hit by pitch and another walked with the bases loaded.
And yet after striking out Victor Caratini, Scherzer was on the verge of getting out of the inning with an 8-2 lead intact. He only needed to retire Camarena, a 28-year-old rookie reliever who struck out in his only previous major league plate appearance and had zero RBIs in 31 career minor league plate appearances.
Scherzer got ahead in the count 1-2 and threw a 96 mph fastball down and in, below the strike zone. There was no reason to believe it would be hit, certainly not well. And yet there went the ball soaring 416 feet to right field for a no-doubt, jaw-dropping grand slam that had to be seen to be believed.
It was the first home run Scherzer had ever surrendered to a pitcher, but it was the second grand slam the Nationals have surrendered to an opposing pitcher this season, Tanner Rainey having been taken deep by the Braves’ Huascar Ynoa back on May 4.
“That’s the funny thing about this game,” Scherzer said. “You can think you have something working, and you have flow and everything. And it shows you how quickly that can turn. This game can snap in a heartbeat like that.”
As Scherzer departed the mound having needed 45 pitches to record two outs in that unfathomable inning, the three-time Cy Young Award winner and future Hall of Famer had a look of shock in his eyes. He paced up and down the dugout before Kyle Finnegan finally ended the fourth, surely asking himself what everyone watching was asking as well.
What just happened?
“It can happen to anybody,” Clay said. “Max is an unbelievable pitcher, three-time Cy Young Award winner. It was just one bad inning. It happens to everybody.”