“I just mechanically was a little bit off right there,” said Hand, who threw only 16 of his 29 pitches for strikes, permitting two late-inning rallies that broke the Nationals’ effort. “Just didn’t have command of my fastball.”
In the end, after Hand exited and after Manager Dave Martinez pushed him to a second inning despite the blown save in the ninth, it was Tanner Rainey who took the fall. Rainey is still searching for the fastball-slider combination that made him dominant in 2020. For the 11th, though, and his second appearance in as many days, he was given a lopsided mission: With the score tied after the Nationals couldn’t nudge Ryan Zimmerman past second base in the top half, he had to strand an automatic runner with Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres due up.
Rainey threw 20 solid pitches Friday. Then he lapsed Saturday — walking Stanton, walking Judge, then yielding a walk-off dribbler to Torres — before the Nationals went from scrambling to trudging down the tunnel to their clubhouse. They had formed a five-man infield to cut off any grounder. That’s what it came down to. Scherzer’s dominance and an unbalanced offense once were enough to take the game. Hand just couldn’t support that formula.
He entered with a 0.00 ERA in 10 innings, and that pitcher, the one who signed a one-year, $10.5 million deal in January, was nowhere near the Bronx. That much was evident once he took the mound in the ninth, a one-run lead to protect, and sprayed four balls to DJ LeMahieu, spiking three into the dirt. A pair of bloop singles, by Judge and Torres, knotted the score. But Hand sidestepped more damage and still could have been hooked after 24 pitches. Right-hander Kyle Finnegan was slowly getting loose.
“He was going to face one hitter and get that lefty out,” Martinez explained of leaving Hand in to start the 10th. “That’s what we were hoping for. He had a lot of pitches, so we didn’t want him up there throwing 30, 35 pitches.”
Mike Ford, that left-handed hitter, has notably better career numbers against left-handed pitchers (though he did have 235 plate appearances against righties, compared with 50 vs. lefties before facing Hand, creating odd samples that may not indicate much). Either way, Martinez wanted the lefty-lefty matchup, and Ford spent most of his at-bat trying to bunt.
Yet because Hand was wild and the count tilted to 3-1, the Yankees changed their mind and had Ford swing away. That swing, compact and to an outside fastball, poked a single that brought in automatic runner Clint Frazier from second. Hand could have nibbled less to set up Finnegan with two right-handed hitters, Kyle Higashioka and Miguel Andújar, at the bottom of New York’s order. Instead, it was as if the bunt attempts never happened.
“I’m not necessarily wanting him to bunt it. It gets a runner to third with less than two outs,” said Hand, who completed one inning, facing seven batters, and allowed two runs on three hits and a five-pitch walk. “Just trying to make good pitches right there. Just didn’t have the command of the stuff today.”
It stung more — Hand’s outing, the missed opportunities, Rainey’s lack of control in the 11th — because of what Scherzer did for 7⅓ innings. His final line included two hits, one earned run, one walk and those 14 strikeouts. It followed his complete game against the Miami Marlins on Sunday. But the effort was clouded by a bullpen that, until late Friday night, had retired 29 consecutive batters. The key now is to make sure the issues are confined.
Scherzer, as he does, placed the blame on himself. Of course, that wasn’t necessary. Yet in a game of inches, where any small mistake can flip the outcome, Scherzer thought back to a slider he threw to Higashioka in the third inning. It was the rare break from his pinpoint, straight-to-the-corners command he thrived with Saturday. It led to a solo homer that erased an early advantage. For him, that’s what stung.
“You’re a part of the team, and you always look at what you can do better,” Scherzer said. “For me, I look at the hanging slider. To me, that’s the difference in the game. If I could execute that pitch better, maybe we win the game.”
That was far, far down the list of maybes Saturday. Higher up, for example, is that maybe the Nationals win if Hand is a sliver of the reliever he was in his first nine appearances. Or maybe the Nationals win if Rainey throws a few more pitches in the strike zone. Or maybe they win if, by chance, the offense produces more than a run in the 10th or more than a soft flyout and two strikeouts in the 11th, when the Nationals were gifted a runner who didn’t budge.
The season is too long to dwell on what could have been. Yet here, on the eighth of May, was a day that tested that rule.
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