But if there were ever an ideal way to begin an otherwise inconvenient day, it was with a 2-0 win like the one the Nationals managed in the opener at Nationals Park. And if there were ever a disappointing and potentially debilitating way to end it, it was with a 2-1 loss in extra innings in the second game after a base-running mistake derailed a rally that might have won it for the Nationals — or at least tied it.
After all of the worry about the state of the Nationals’ pitching staff, it combined to allow the Giants zero runs over 14 scheduled innings. Just-activated starter Erick Fedde threw five scoreless innings in the opener. Just-promoted Jefry Rodriguez added four more to start the second game. The Nationals’ offense was what let them down, though Kyle Schwarber’s homer and Josh Harrison’s RBI double were enough in the first game. In the second, the only offense came after they were down 2-0 in the eighth inning.
After Kyle Finnegan — forced into his second outing of the day by the lack of available relievers — allowed the go-ahead runs to score, Robles overslid second base while trying to tag from first on a flyball to right center. Instead of runners on the corners with one out, the miscue left Starlin Castro on third with two outs, where he remained after Trea Turner popped out to end the game. Juan Soto stood on deck.
“Right there, that’s not a very smart decision,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said after the game. “We had the top of the order coming up. Men on first and third, you let the game play out.”
Such is life for the 2021 Nationals, whose margin for error is thin but who demonstrated Saturday why a small margin for error doesn’t necessarily preclude success.
That doubleheaders are now seven-inning games helped the Nationals (26-35) emerge with a split. So did the fact that the Giants (40-24) weren’t at full strength, either. But in terms of setting the tone for a day that could have left the Nationals in far worse shape, Fedde’s performance was indispensable.
The right-hander, who spent the first month of the season looking ready to emerge as a reliable part of the rotation after years of fighting to stay in the big leagues, had been on the injured list since mid-May after he tested positive for the coronavirus despite being vaccinated. He lost four weeks to the positive test, in part because his scheduled rehab outings were repeatedly rained out.
But even with the layoff, Fedde limited the Giants to four singles, striking out seven without walking a batter and lowering his ERA to 3.86 over nine starts. The Nationals had sorely missed him.
“Two things that stick out: One is confidence. Two is the ability to throw all four of his pitches when he wants to and throw strikes,” Martinez said. “Things are starting to come together for him.”
Injuries to Jon Lester and Stephen Strasburg, struggles by Patrick Corbin and inconsistency by Joe Ross left a roster built around its highly paid rotation scrambling to fill in the blanks. But rarely have the Nationals scrambled as they had to Friday night into Saturday morning.
Their relief efforts in Friday’s 1-0 loss included 3⅓ innings from Paolo Espino, meaning he wouldn’t be available as a long man if Fedde faltered — let alone if the Nationals needed a starter for Game 2. Kyle McGowin and Ryne Harper also handled more than an inning each. That left them four fresh relievers entering 14 innings of play Saturday: Tanner Rainey, Finnegan, Brad Hand and Daniel Hudson.
Then came the news late Friday night that Hudson was hurting. The right-hander was experiencing elbow inflammation — nothing serious, he said, but enough to shut him down for a few days. His MRI exam was clean, but the Nationals needed a roster spot for a pitcher or two. So they placed Hudson on the injured list retroactive to Thursday, when the inflammation first appeared. He won’t be eligible to return until next weekend against the New York Mets.
While Hudson is out, Martinez said the Nationals will rely more on Finnegan and Rainey, who has struggled but pitched a scoreless inning in the nightcap. But hours into life without Hudson, the Nationals felt his absence.
At this point in the season, as the Nationals sit nine games under .500 with six weeks to go until the trade deadline, Hudson will be crucial in one of two ways: If they find their footing and start climbing back into contention, they will need him to pitch big innings. If they don’t, the back-end reliever with an impressive October résumé may be a valuable trade chip.
But on Saturday afternoon, the trade deadline felt miles away because the Nationals not only beat the best team in the NL but also beat its ace, Kevin Gausman. Gausman had not allowed an earned run in his past four starts, a stretch of 24 innings by the time Schwarber smashed a fastball into the second deck to lead off the first. Finnegan threw a scoreless sixth. Hand closed it out, which allowed the Nationals to head into the second game with Rodriguez starting and a handful of fresh relievers behind him — as convenient of a situation as they could have hoped for, considering the circumstances.
Rodriguez came through, too. He threw four scoreless innings, working in and out of trouble — and around his tendency to walk more batters than he would like. McGowin and Rainey chipped in scoreless innings. Hand gutted out his second scoreless inning of the day in the seventh. The Nationals’ pitching staff, so depleted, so run-down, combined to shut out the Giants through all 14 innings scheduled for Saturday.
But the Giants’ pitching staff held the Nationals down, too, in keeping with a remarkably low-scoring series in which the teams have six runs in three games.
So by the time Finnegan had to throw his second inning of the day in the eighth, this time with the mandatory runner on second base in extra innings, the Giants finally pushed the Nationals’ pitching staff off the tight rope it had walked all day. Two runs scored. The Nationals could only score one in their half, a potential game-tying rally undone when Robles got too aggressive on the base paths — a product, Martinez said, of a struggling offense trying to do too much to push runs across.
Robles said he knew he was the winning run and wanted to get in scoring position for Turner and Soto. He also said he agreed with Martinez’s assessment of his decision-making.
“It was not the right decision, especially since it turned out to be a double play and I took the bat away from Juan Soto,” Robles said through interpreter Octavio Martinez.
After a day spent trying to figure out how they would find the innings to hold down the Giants, it was the Nationals’ offense that let them down, forcing them to tax the late-inning relievers they will need most in Hudson’s absence so much that neither will be able to help them as they try to salvage a series split Sunday.
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