For the second time in three games, then, after he had leaned on Voth and Sam Clay in a disastrous seventh inning Friday night, Martinez pressed a button that didn’t work. Hand yielded an RBI double to Max Muncy, the first batter he faced, that stretched a lead that kept on growing. The Dodgers took the finale, 5-1, and swept the four-game series in Washington, picking on a depleted roster to sour the Fourth of July tradition of late-morning baseball at Nationals Park.
The Nationals stranded seven runners against eight Dodgers relievers. They are 40-42, four games behind the New York Mets in the National League East.
“Playing some of these really good teams with some of these really good hitters, we’re going to have to be a little bit more creative,” Martinez said of tapping the left-handed Hand to match up with Muncy, a left-handed hitter, and the toughest part of Los Angeles’s order. “We talked about that, and those guys are on board.”
Most of the Nationals and Dodgers got little sleep, finishing one game at 12:22 a.m. Sunday and showing up, bleary-eyed and loopy, to play another at 11:05. Nationals starter Joe Ross, though, was well rested, because Martinez sent him home before the Nationals fell, 5-3, following a 104-minute rain delay Saturday. And that showed early in Ross’s outing.
To strike out leadoff batter Mookie Betts, he dialed a high fastball to 95 mph. The next batter, Muncy, swung through a 97-mph sinker before walking back to the dugout. Twice in the first inning, Ross reached 98 mph on the radar gun, a speed he hadn’t touched since he underwent Tommy John surgery in the summer of 2017. It was a good time to find his old self.
Since Trea Turner and Jordy Mercer were injured in Wednesday’s win over the Tampa Bay Rays, the Nationals have been incredibly shorthanded, going with a four-man bench that has often had just two available pinch hitters. Add in injuries to Kyle Schwarber, Stephen Strasburg, Hudson, Rainey, Finnegan, Erick Fedde, Alex Avila, Harris and Andrew Stevenson, and they are hanging by a thread in the division race, with tough road matchups against the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants up next before the all-star break.
“We hit a little rough patch here,” Turner said Sunday. “That’s part of just running into a really good team. It’s part of a lot of injuries at the same time, which is kind of unfortunate. So we hit a little bit of a speed bump. But hopefully we can get a lot of guys back and get back to where we were.”
That all added layers to Ross’s start. With an undermanned bullpen — a group that includes Jefry Rodriguez, Kyle Lobstein, Ryne Harper and Andres Machado — every inning would help shrink the bridge to Hand. And with a thin bench — with Turner still slowed by a jammed left middle finger and with Yan Gomes, the usual starting catcher, nursing a swollen right forearm after he was struck by a fastball Saturday — the Nationals didn’t have the flexibility for early pinch hitters (again).
They needed Ross to thrive. They just also needed more offense, too.
“Fastball command,” Ross said, straight to the point, when asked about notching 10 or more strikeouts for the third time in his career. “I was able to command the [sinker], been using the four-seam a lot lately, and then later on throwing the breaking ball off of that.”
Ross struck out the first four batters he faced. After the Nationals took a 1-0 lead on Starlin Castro’s RBI single in the third, Matt Beaty beat Ross in the fourth with a solo homer to left-center to tie the score. The Dodgers then staged a two-out rally, loading the bases, but Ross struck out Steven Souza Jr. looking to strand the three runners. Three of his 11 strikeouts came on well-placed fastballs that didn’t induce a swing.
The seventh inning slipped from Ross once Gavin Lux led off with a double to the gap in right-center. Two batters later, Albert Pujols nudged the Dodgers ahead with a pinch-hit single down to the left field wall. That’s when Hand warmed, entered and tried to keep the slim deficit intact. And that’s when Muncy doubled to right, punching a hanging slider, widening a gap the Nationals couldn’t close.
They grounded into three inning-ending double plays. Yadiel Hernandez and Victor Robles combined to go 0 for 7 with six strikeouts. Robles stared at a hittable, in-the-zone fastball from David Price with two outs, two strikes and a runner on second in the sixth, when the Nationals were still trailing by one run. Juan Soto popped up a middle-middle cutter from Blake Treinen with a runner on and two outs in the seventh. He then slammed his bat in understandable frustration.
“I thought we had pretty good at-bats,” Martinez said when asked whether the offense is pressing. “Man, they’re playing hard.”
All weekend, the defending World Series champion Dodgers showcased the depth and versatility of their lineup and pitching staff. With their pinch hitters, they flipped late-inning matchups like a hockey team changing lines. With their bullpen, they covered nine innings with Garrett Cleavinger, Phil Bickford, Víctor González, Joe Kelly, Price, Treinen, Jimmy Nelson and Kenley Jansen — and that was just Sunday. They looked primed for another run.
And then there were the Nationals, appearing as a stark contrast, having to get healthy before it is too late. Or at the very least, in the coming week, they will have to figure out better ways to shade their absences and flaws.