It was going to be a messy win or a bad loss. The matchup — and the way it unfolded — left nothing in between. That’s what the Washington Nationals faced Sunday afternoon, after they rallied against the Baltimore Orioles and turned to a tired bullpen. A series sweep was theirs if they held on. A day off waited at the start of the week.

They needed Wander Suero, Daniel Hudson and Brad Hand to make one more push. And when they did, holding the Orioles to a run in 3⅓ innings, the Nationals beat the Orioles, 6-5, and limped to 20 wins on May 23. Those numbers are significant around here. They meant that, on the two-year anniversary of 19-31, the 2021 team had not dug the same hole as the 2019 World Series champions.

Take that as a dash of comfort or a silly stat. Consider that, of the Nationals’ 20 victories, six came in sweeps of the Orioles and Miami Marlins. But Washington (20-23) has hung around in a packed and underachieving National League East.

The question now will be whether that comes with an immediate cost. Hudson, who notched a scoreless eighth, entered having pitched in back-to-back games and on three of the previous four days. So had Hand, who grabbed a shaky save, when he jogged in for the ninth.

“You want to keep these guys right for the whole season and keep them healthy,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “But when you have a chance to win a game, it’s about really having these conversations and really seeing where they’re at. If any one of them had told me they needed a day, we would have had to do something else.”

The bullpen was taxed Saturday by a short start for Jon Lester and Will Harris’s inability to complete the eighth inning. Then Harris and center fielder Victor Robles went to the injured list before the first pitch Sunday.

Harris again landed there with right hand inflammation, leading to another promotion for right-hander Kyle McGowin. The next step for Harris is to see a specialist in Dallas this week. Robles went on the IL, retroactive to Thursday, with a right ankle sprain and was not immediately replaced, leaving the Nationals a man down for the series finale. By making the latter move Sunday and not waiting a few more days, the Nationals can activate Robles ahead of a matchup with the Milwaukee Brewers next Sunday. That’s the best-case scenario.

Harris’s situation is trickier — his hand is swelling as he throws — but the bigger takeaway is that, through seven weeks, the Nationals have yet to be at full strength. They just got Stephen Strasburg back after he missed more than a month with right shoulder inflammation. Right-hander Erick Fedde remains sidelined after he tested positive for the coronavirus Wednesday. Reliever Tanner Rainey is sidelined because he was a close contact to Fedde. The roster is a constant churn.

“We’ll just have to wait and see and hope that for some unknown reason it goes away or it’s not as bad,” Martinez said of Harris’s issue, painting a bleak picture. “We just don’t know.”

“It hurts losing those guys and missing those guys,” Hand added after the win. “But there’s always going to be someone else to fill that role and get the job done.”

The Orioles started with four consecutive singles off Patrick Corbin, took a breath for a double play, then added Maikel Franco’s RBI double. The damage was three runs and 30 pitches for Corbin, who continued his season-long hunt for consistency. But the offense used a four-run first to flip the scoreboard.

Trea Turner started it with an infield single, Josh Bell singled him in two batters later, then Kyle Schwarber tied the score with a two-run homer off Orioles starter Matt Harvey. Back-to-back two-out doubles by Josh Harrison and Alex Avila put the Nationals ahead. After Baltimore tied it in the third, Avila added a double in the fourth and scored on Turner’s sacrifice fly to put Washington up 5-4.

The next batter, Juan Soto, skied a pop-up above home plate and stayed around the batter’s box. If he had even jogged to first base, a run would have scored after catcher Pedro Severino let the ball hit the grass. But Severino was able to gather the ball and throw Soto out, costing the Nationals an insurance run. Soto slammed his helmet into the dirt and kept stewing over the mistake in the dugout. But his teammates did tack on in the fifth, when Andrew Stevenson walked with the bases loaded.

“I already talked to him about it, and I told him it’s embarrassing for the whole club,” Martinez said of Soto’s delayed trot to first. “He understands that, and I made him apologize to the team. I told him it doesn’t happen again.”

Martinez pushed Corbin into the sixth, trying to squeeze everything he could out of the lefty. A short bench and unavailable relievers factored into the decision. Kyle Finnegan and Austin Voth were off limits. Corbin had allowed nine hits, then the Orioles added two more — a pair of singles — before Martinez hooked him for Suero with two outs.

Suero recorded four outs and, in the seventh, gave up a run on a double, a wild pitch and an RBI groundout by Trey Mancini. But Hudson and Hand kept the Orioles right there. Hudson tossed a one-two-three eighth that included a 99-mph fastball for a looking strikeout. His ERA dipped to 1.06 in 17 innings. Then Hand, the unsteady closer, yielded a leadoff single to Stevie Wilkerson, putting the tying run on, before the Nationals intentionally walked Mancini and Hand shut the door, striking out Anthony Santander with four high fastballs.

The win felt like a narrow escape. That’s the nature of just getting by.

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