In the after phase, after the rain stopped, the tarp was rolled up and a fan ceased shouting obscenities at Joe Buck — who was not in the stadium — the Dodgers edged the Nationals, 5-3, on Saturday night at Nationals Park to give themselves a chance to sweep the four-game series in the morning. First pitch for the finale is at 11:05 a.m. Sunday, a Fourth of July tradition in Washington. The scheduling decision was made long before these clubs finished past midnight.
“If we weren’t leaving town tomorrow, I’d definitely sleep here, that’s for sure,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “It’s a quick turnaround. I told the boys, ‘Get some quick rest.’ ”
On the wrong end of three straight, the Nationals are 40-41 at the midway point of their season, trailing the New York Mets by 3½ games in the National League East. And it could be way worse, all things considered, given how they fared in April and May. But they still have one game with the Dodgers, four with the San Diego Padres and three with the San Francisco Giants before the all-star break, a stretch made especially difficult by how many key players are on the injured list.
To fall behind Saturday, the Nationals were burned by a mental mistake from their newest player. Alcides Escobar — yes, that Alcides Escobar — who started at shortstop because Trea Turner remains slowed by a jammed left middle finger and Jordy Mercer is on the 10-day injured list with a strained right quadriceps. Escobar arrived Saturday in a trade with the Kansas City Royals, with the Nationals shipping cash considerations to the Midwest. His presence alone is a microcosm of the team’s poor injury luck of late.
“I’ll do anything I can possible to help them win,” the 34-year-old Escobar said in Spanish through a team interpreter. “I’ll give them the most out of me to be able to do that.”
The Nationals began the afternoon by placing Kyle Schwarber (right hamstring strain) and Alex Avila (bilateral calf strains) on the IL. That meant they would face the Dodgers without Schwarber, their hottest hitter; Andrew Stevenson, his logical backup; Avila, their backup catcher; Turner, their starting shortstop; Mercer, Turner’s backup; starter Stephen Strasburg and Erick Fedde, who was Strasburg’s replacement; and Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan and Will Harris, relievers who are supposed to anchor the bullpen.
That’s how Espino, a journeyman, winds up facing Kershaw, a future Hall of Famer. That’s how Escobar and Gerardo Parra wind up in Washington’s lineup, Starlin Castro winds up hitting fourth and Yadiel Hernandez and Tres Barrera wind up on the bench. And that’s how Escobar winds up bobbling a grounder in the sixth, rushing into a poor decision and, indirectly, nudging the Dodgers ahead.
With Will Smith on first and Albert Pujols lumbering from the box, the grounder looked like a sure double play ball. But once Escobar booted it, the safest bet was to fire across the diamond to retire Pujols, the slow-footed, guaranteed out. It would have put Wander Suero one out away from a clean inning. Instead, Escobar rushed a flip to second, Smith was safe, and Josh Harrison sailed a throw past Ryan Zimmerman at first, allowing Smith to advance 90 additional feet.
Two batters later, once Suero struck out Gavin Lux, AJ Pollock dribbled a single toward third and Smith scored. But he only did because of Harrison’s throwing error, which never happens if Escobar takes the easier path, which was underscored by how long it takes Pujols, 41, to run from here to there.
“Before the actual groundball took place, I anticipated that if I get the hit I’m going for two, I’m turning two,” Escobar explained. “And the ball was hit very hard, and sharply. So in my head, I knew that even if I was able to flip and not get the out at second base, there was enough time to get Pujols out at first if the play was still turned the way it could have. Things didn’t result that way, but I had just preset my mind that I was still going to turn two.”
Washington’s shorthanded offense was quiet aside from Gomes’s three-run shot. Since the bench was thin again, with Turner only available to pinch hit and with Martinez unwilling to use his backup catcher unless absolutely necessary, starting pitcher Jon Lester pinch-hit for the second consecutive game, striking out to waste the final out of the fifth.
The Nationals then loaded the bases in the sixth before Joe Kelly — yes, that Joe Kelly — struck out Parra on a low curveball. In the seventh, after Escobar led off with a single to center, Victor Robles popped up a bunt, reached on a fielder’s choice and ended the frame by getting thrown out on a steal attempt. In the ninth, after Castro led off with a single and Gomes walked, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen struck out Parra, struck out Escobar and got Josh Bell, who was pinch-hitting for Robles, to line out. Turner was in the on-deck circle when another loss was sealed. Martinez maintained that he didn’t consider swapping in Bell or Turner for Parra or Escobar during the rally.
Those were the faint signs of a comeback that never materialized. The Dodgers had tacked on an insurance run against Kyle McGowin in the top of the ninth. And when the night finished, and it was technically morning in Washington, the next first pitch was less than 11 hours away.
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