The latest reshaping of the Orioles rotation, like a big ball of clay that can be manipulated to take on many forms, put Matt Harvey into tonight’s game rather than assigning him the task of closing out the series a day later.
Manager Brandon Hyde didn’t want Harvey waiting a full week between starts after the veteran right-hander tossed six scoreless innings in his last outing. Harvey didn’t want to wait any longer.
Meanwhile, the Nationals scratched Max Scherzer due to right triceps discomfort and moved up left-hander Jon Lester, forcing a lineup change from the Orioles and creating a rematch of Game 1 of the 2015 National League Championship Series.
The 2020 truncated season’s opening day was exactly one year ago today. There had to be some weirdness to mark the occasion.
Harvey embraced it as tightly as his renewed look of a possible trade chip. He retired the first 10 batters and 18 of 19, allowing just one hit, and the Orioles held on to defeat the Nationals 5-3 before an announced crowd of 30,898 at Camden Yards.
Harvey was flashing his 2015 playoff form with the Mets, when he held the Cubs, with Brandon Hyde as bench coach, to two runs and struck out nine in 7 2/3 innings. He was cruising tonight until Trea Turner doubled off the out-of-town scoreboard with one out in the fourth, then got back to the dugout with his lead intact after a grounder and fly ball from Juan Soto and Josh Bell, respectively.
His pitch counts through the sixth were 13, 11, 14, 10, 15 and 20. He retired 18 of 19 batters, and 16 balls for outs didn’t leave the infield. Ground balls distributed like Jim Palmer bobbleheads.
“I just think the All-Star break really got a nice little recharge in the batteries,” Hyde said on his Zoom call. “Like I said many times, this guy didn’t pitch much last year, the last four years or so has been sporadic outings, injuries, etc., and didn’t pitch much last year at all, and this year he’s pretty much stayed regular. I pushed him back a bunch of days at times. The All-Star break, giving him that nice nine-10 day break, you saw some 96s early in the game. The slider and curveball were effective, threw some good changeups, too. Good fastball all the way through his outing.”
Hyde still made the switch after 83 pitches, though he wanted to avoid it.
“I talked to Matt after the sixth,” Hyde said, “and you could tell it was time to go with somebody else.”
Harvey hasn’t allowed a run in 12 innings since the break, with no walks tonight and four strikeouts. He’s posted back-to-back scoreless starts for the first time since August 2015 and his ERA is down to 6.65.
“I think the last time I had this many starts was 2018 in a continuous year, so it was definitely good to physically have the break,” he said. “And then obviously when you feel like it’s so close and you go out and one inning here and there gets the best of you, it gets a little mentally draining, as well. So, I think definitely being able to just kind of flip the switch and just really pretend I’m starting fresh and trying to concentrate on being out there every fifth, sixth, seventh day, whatever it is with all these off-days, and just trying to win as many games as I can for this team and really just kind of start over and flush what happened in the first half.”
Harvey said it’s “definitely been a couple years” since he felt this good and locked in on the mound.
“I’d say probably around 2018 or so,” he said. “Really just feeling really good with all the pitches, and especially the curveball. I haven’t thrown that a whole lot in the past. Being able to get that over for a strike and also being able to feel confident with it both to righties and lefties and get ahead in the count, it’s been something we’ve been working on for a while now. But tonight was obviously the first time I felt really good with it throughout the whole outing.”
The trade deadline is Friday, but Harvey keeps blocking it out.
“Obviously, everybody knows when it is and it’s there,” he said, “but really my job is to go out and prepare for each start and see what happens. Obviously, I haven’t put up very good numbers other than the previous two and to really be a target or whatnot, but at the end of the day those decisions aren’t mine and I can’t really worry about them. My job is to go out and win ballgames for the Orioles, and luckily I’ve been able to do that the last two and I’m going to continue to do that from here on out.”
The Nationals waited until Adam Plutko replaced Harvey to end the shutout bid, with Soto hitting a solo home run in the seventh. Tanner Scott inherited a runner from Plutko with no outs in the eighth, hit two batters, struck out the next two on sliders and allowed a two-run single to Turner that shaved the lead to 5-3. Soto popped up.
Lester was supposed to start Sunday, facing a club that he’s beaten 15 times in 19 decisions but no longer dominates. The only hit he surrendered tonight through 3 2/3 innings came on Mancini’s home run.
Third baseman Josh Harrison made a diving stop and throw to rob Mancini in the fourth. Second baseman Alcides Escobar did the same to Ramón Urías to end the inning.
In between those defensive gems was Mountcastle’s 437-foot drive to center field, his second home run against Lester this season following a grand slam in May. Lester allowed six runs in four innings that day in D.C.
Escobar struck again with two outs in the fifth, his dive and throw retiring Pat Valaika and preventing Pedro Severino from scoring after a leadoff walk. But Cedric Mullins led off the sixth with a double, Austin Voth replaced Lester and Austin Hays doubled.
Mancini’s fly ball fell into center field and Mountcastle walked to load the bases with no outs. Urías, who began the night batting .355/.444/.419 with runners in scoring position, stuck out looking, but Severino lined an RBI single into left field and Mancini scored when Soto made a diving catch to deny Maikel Franco.
Mountcastle doubled in the eighth and was stranded. Urías struck out for a third time.
Scott was pitching for the third time in four days. So was Dillon Tate, who notched his second save and hasn’t surrendered a run in his last six appearances. He stranded Harrison after a two-out single.
The largest crowd since 2019 roared its approval.
“The guys in the dugout were talking about it,” Hyde said. “We had a night two or three weeks ago that was kind of similar to this. It’s a noticeable difference. The energy, players are feeding off it. We should have Jim Palmer bobblehead night more often, because it was just a great energy in the ballpark and players loved it. It does help, there’s no doubt about it. It does help, and kudos to our fans for coming out and supporting us tonight.”
Notes: The Orioles signed three more draft picks, all to overslot deals: infielder Collin Burns (sixth round), catcher Connor Pavolony (seventh) and outfielder Trendon Craig (20th). They’ve signed 20 of 21. One more remains - pitcher Daniel Lloyd, a 14th-rounder from the University of South Carolina.
An unusually poor night for Grayson Rodriguez with Double-A Bowie. He lasted only 1 2/3 innings and allowed four runs and three hits with two walks, five strikeouts and a home run. He also hit a batter and was removed after 46 pitches.
Zach Watson hit his first home run for the Baysox and had a walk-off single. Adley Rutschman hit a game-tying homer in the ninth.. Nick Vespi retired all seven batters he faced and got two strikeouts. Ofelky Peralta allowed only an unearned run and one hit in four innings.
Triple-A Norfolk’s Dean Kremer allowed three runs and seven hits in 4 2/3 innings, with no walks and three strikeouts.
Catcher Ramon Rodriguez hit his first two home runs tonight for Single-A Aberdeen and Jordan Westburg hit his fourth. Drew Rom allowed one run and three hits in five innings, striking out six batters. His ERA is 2.79.
TT Bowens had a two-run single for Single-A Delmarva.