SAN FRANCISCO — Dave Martinez is in the final week of his first month as Washington Nationals manager, and his news conference before his club’s 4-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park Monday offered a representative slice of the challenges he’s encountered thus far. A few questions touched on different topics, but most of the seven-minute session centered on the health of various players in various conditions in two locations across the country from each other.
There was Adam Eaton, Daniel Murphy, and Brian Goodwin, three players on the disabled list. Eaton (ankle) is traveling with the team in California. Murphy (knee) and Goodwin (wrist) are in West Palm Beach, Fla. at the club’s facility. There was Ryan Madson, who isn’t on the disabled list but hadn’t pitched since completing an excessively heavy three-straight-game workload on Wednesday. Martinez said he was available on Monday.
Then there was the curious case of Shawn Kelley. The veteran right-hander hadn’t pitched in a week, but Martinez insisted Kelley was healthy, pointing out that he had warmed up in a couple games without entering. He said Kelley was available to pitch Monday, and added he believed the Giants’ lineup presented a favorable matchup for the veteran.
Kelley did pitch in Monday’s defeat, Washington’s third straight as it continues a nine-game road trip, and his four-pitch outing embodied his misfortune since he was one of baseball’s best relievers in 2016. Relieving Gio Gonzalez with a runner on base and the Giants (10-12) leading 2-1, Kelley watched Mac Williamson crush his first pitch, an 89 mph fastball, 464 feet through the chilly bay air over the wall in right-center field.
Three pitches later, Kelley spiked a slider several feet in front of home plate. The toss instantly sprung trainer Paul Lessard from the Nationals’ dugout. After a brief conversation, Kelley, a two-time Tommy John recipient, walked off the mound. After the game, Martinez said Kelley was diagnosed with ulnar nerve irritation. A stint on the disabled list is probable.
“I felt really good this year so far,” Kelley said. “Everything’s been good, so to all of a sudden come out and not be clicking right and not be working, is a little frustrating. But it doesn’t seem to be anything super serious. I need it to calm down for a couple days.”
Sammy Solis replaced Kelley and retired the three batters he faced to keep Washington within three runs, but the Nationals (10-13) couldn’t overcome the difference. Both of Washington’s runs came via sacrifice flies — after scoring that way twice against the Dodgers on Sunday. The Nationals left seven runners on base and finished 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position, though a few hard-hit line drives directly at fielders skewed those numbers.
The Nationals blew their best scoring chance in the sixth, when they failed to capitalize on a pair of bizarre Giants errors from usually surehanded veterans — Evan Longoria’s dropped pop up in foul territory and Andrew McCutchen’s dropped flyball in right field. The first gaffe saved Bryce Harper, who then drew his league-leading 29th walk of the season. The second put Ryan Zimmerman at second base and Harper advanced to third. Matt Adams then struck out and Matt Wieters lined out to end the threat.
“That was the big turning point of the game,” Martinez said. “If that happens, we do something different in the bullpen. And unfortunately, we didn’t knock those runs in. But I think we had 16 hard-hit balls today and just couldn’t score any runs.”
Gonzalez wriggled out of a jam in the second inning before encountering more trouble in the fourth. This time, after issuing a walk to Buster Posey and giving a double up to Brandon Belt, Mac Williamson drove in a run with a groundball to third baseman Wilmer Difo. Instead of getting the sure out at first base, Difo threw wide home. Gonzalez limited the damage to the one run, stranding two runners in his escape, but Difo’s choice forced Gonzalez to throw more pitches, which helped lead to his frustration the next inning.
The left-hander exited in the sixth inning after walking Belt with his 94th pitch and wasn’t pleased with the decision. He was charged with three runs on four hits and three walks. He struck out three. And he thought he was pulled prematurely.
“I’m a starting pitcher, if I could go perfect every game I would, but right now sometimes I got to hit some walls to break through,” Gonzalez said. “Apparently, I just got to someway somehow convince I can go past five innings.”
Asked if he thinks he should’ve stayed in the longer, Gonzalez replied: “100 percent.”
It was the fourth straight time Gonzalez has been removed before getting through the sixth inning, and it shifted the responsibility of getting the game’s final 12 outs for a win to Washington’s eight-man bullpen. And again, the relief corps, which entered the night with the highest bullpen ERA in the National League, stumbled in the middle innings.
Two years ago, Kelley pitched to a 2.64 ERA and struck out 10 batters per nine innings in 67 outings. He was defying the odds stacked against a pitcher whose elbow has twice required reconstructive surgery. But Kelley exited Game 5 of the 2016 NLDS with a nerve problem similar to the one that emerged Monday and hasn’t been the same since. Last season, as he posted the highest home run rate among relievers in baseball in between three disabled list stints for three different injuries — a strained lower back, a strained right trapezius, and bone chips in his right elbows.
He underwent a stem cell procedure late last season to quicken the elbow trouble he had been dealing with since the end of the 2016 season. The Nationals were intent on closely monitoring Kelley’s workload and avoiding appearances on consecutive days for him. Though he hadn’t pitched in a week before Monday, two of his seven previous appearances were on the second of back-to-back outings. But Kelley maintained he felt good all season, up through his warm-up session on Monday. Then he suddenly didn’t, and the list of questions surrounding the Nationals grew.