Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Clay Holmes hung a curveball. Schwarber waited, then waited a tick longer, before delivering a 3-2 win at Nationals Park. With a well-timed swing, he doubled down on Sunday’s request to not discard these Nationals. Not yet, at least. Schwarber has four homers out of the leadoff spot in the past three days. He added an RBI single and a walk against starter JT Brubaker.
He has been the spark this club has wished for, and has promised would come, since it slipped in early April. And sure, this is one tight victory against a bottom-feeding team. But it is now mid-June, somehow, and the math is already dicey for Washington (28-35). Every step forward counts.
“I mean, I got a lot of belief in this team,” Schwarber said. “There’s been a lot of adversity thrown at the team. To start the year, guys on the covid list. There have been some injuries here, left and right. ... I always feel like we’re in games. I never feel like we’re out of reach."
Entering Monday, the Nationals had to finish 63-47 to reach 90 victories, their annual goal. That’s a .630 winning percentage across 2½ months. They did it in 2019, ripping off the best 70-game stretch in club history to bury a 19-31 start. But this is a new year, a new team, one without Anthony Rendon or Howie Kendrick in the lineup, or Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer in their current rotation.
Strasburg is on the 10-day injured list with nerve irritation in his neck. Scherzer could soon head there after tweaking his groin in a two-batter start against the San Francisco Giants on Friday. He threw a bullpen session Monday and felt lingering discomfort while pushing off the mound. The Nationals could patch his spot with reliever Paolo Espino or Jefry Rodriguez on short rest. Or they could roll out their bullpen, one arm after another, with Thursday’s schedule clear.
Any climb from the basement has a humble beginning. And if the Nationals are to make one, this series would be a good starting point. The calendar has yet to totally count them out. In theory, the rebuilding Pirates can be a punching bag, even for a fellow last-place team. But the game still has to be played, and the Nationals know that. Someone told Schwarber, too.
“He’s getting the ball in the strike zone,” said Manager Dave Martinez, who has attributed that to Schwarber hitting in front of Trea Turner and Juan Soto. “When he does that, he’s dangerous. He really is. If he continues to swing at the ball in the strike zone, you’re going to see big numbers from him.”
Washington fell behind when Kevin Newman rocked a 2-2 slider from Jon Lester in the second. The homer found the left field seats, sailing higher than the foul pole. The Nationals tied the score in the third, once Victor Robles punched a leadoff double and Schwarber singled him in off Brubaker. Then after Schwarber had a misstep on the base paths, trying to go first to third when he shouldn’t have, Soto singled Turner in.
Lester had a slim lead to protect, and he did so in the fourth and fifth. For most of his season, he has had to lean on one or two pitches while his others came around. But he ended Monday’s outing with a balanced mix: 25 four-seam fastballs, 20 change-ups, 20 cutters and 16 sinkers. He didn’t show much trust in his curveball, throwing it just six times. And he couldn’t escape the sixth without a bit more damage on his line.
Pirates catcher Jacob Stallings smacked a 103-mph liner to the right-center field gap. Robles broke in the wrong direction, then took an odd route to what ultimately bounced for a double. Lester was hooked a batter later, and Wander Suero yielded a one-out single to Newman. A sacrifice fly for Erik González then knotted the score again.
“Obviously I have faced these guys a lot, so there’s not really a whole lot to hide from them,” Lester said of showing a lot of his arsenal. “I’ve been beat by them by being stubborn and trying to pitch in with the fastball and cutter a little too much. So we really just tried to mix that sinker and that change-up away, and threw a few four-seamers in there to maybe get them guessing as far as which way the ball is going to go.”
But Schwarber unknotted it on Holmes’s 1-0 curve in the seventh. Kyle Finnegan, Tanner Rainey and Brad Hand combined to notch the final nine outs without a hitch. Schwarber already had two walk-off shots at Nationals Park this season. A third-deck homer, too, with a red seat in Section 234 to prove it. He is 5 for 13 with four homers while batting leadoff, and he may have to get comfortable there. The Nationals have also taken four of their past six games, edging the first-place Tampa Bay Rays, the first-place Giants (twice) and now the Pirates in that stretch.
So far, the Nationals found traction when Schwarber is batting first and mashing homers. Perhaps it will nudge the rest of the club into much better form. Perhaps this is where it starts, whatever it winds up being.
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