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For openers, Dodgers expose Nats’ issues in back of their rotation with 9-3 rout

Nationals pitching coach Paul Menhart talks things over with Joe Ross during the third inning. Ross allowed nine hits and seven runs in 4 ⅔ innings. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Creativity was only rewarded for so long Saturday, having one moment, then another, then giving way to what tripped the Washington Nationals into their first three-game losing streak since mid-May.

They still don’t have a fifth starter, evident in many ways against the Los Angeles Dodgers, eventually leading to a 9-3 defeat at Nationals Park. Washington used an opener, opting for reliever Matt Grace for the first two innings, and that worked. But Joe Ross followed, gave up seven runs on nine hits in 4 2/3 innings, and left his team, now 55-49, teetering off the top of the National League wild card standings.

“The first part of the plan was really good,” Manager Dave Martinez said, adding that Grace told him he was finished after 26 pitches. “I wish I could’ve sent Gracie out a couple more innings. He did his job. He was really, really good.”

The offense also couldn’t solve Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw after scoring twice in the first. Washington managed just five hits and was buried by the Dodgers’ four-run seventh. And so the afternoon ended with the Nationals facing a familiar question, yet again, as they hope to avoid getting swept at home Sunday: What should they do about the last spot in their rotation?

The latest attempt to answer that began with Grace, oddly enough, since he’d made just one start in his five-year career. The lefty threw 4⅓ scoreless innings in place of Max Scherzer in August 2017, allowing just two hits, emptying his entire tank before rejoining the bullpen a day later. Martinez chewed hard on making Grace his opener against the defending NL champs, and decided Friday night that the timing was right.

“If that’s something strategy-wise that they see is a good opportunity, I’ll take the ball when they want to give it to me,” Grace said of opening in the future, something Martinez didn’t commit to or rule out. “It doesn’t really make a difference to me when they want to use me.”

The opener has caught on around baseball in the past few seasons. The strategy, at its core, is to start the game with a reliever, see how many outs he can get, then hand the ball to an unproven starter in the third or fourth inning. That starter, in turn, will make one fewer trip through the top of an opposing order. If the opener can create favorable matchups — like Grace did against the Dodgers’ lefty-heavy lineup — that’s an added bonus.

And the Nationals’ adoption of the opener, if only for a game, underscored a deficiency and development: their thin rotation depth, and their willingness to innovate. Ross is part of a rotating cast of fifth starter options, along with Austin Voth (on the injured list with biceps and shoulder tendinitis), Erick Fedde (with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators) and Kyle McGowin (with the Class AAA Fresno Grizzlies). They have been tested, and auditioned, since Scherzer’s stint on the injured list after the all-star break.

None of them have stood out, even marginally, even if General Manager Mike Rizzo insists that a fifth starter isn’t needed heading into Wednesday’s trade deadline.

“I like the depth that we have,” Rizzo said earlier this month when asked if the Nationals would pad the back of their rotation. “We got our big four guys, and we’re totally satisfied with our fifth starter spot.”

This was always an iffy combination against one of the league’s best offenses. Grace, with his 6.23 ERA as a reliever, warmed up in the bullpen as first pitch neared. Ross, with just one major league start this season, long-tossed in the outfield. Grace held up his end, retiring all six hitters he faced on 26 pitches, polishing off the second with back-to-back strikeouts of Max Muncy and Corey Seager. Ross could not say the same.

The Nationals had sprung ahead against Kershaw, plating two quick runs in the top of the first. But the scoreboard evened once Ross took the mound, and then it flipped in Los Angeles’s favor, and the Dodgers pulled away as the stadium emptied out.

Ross’s third pitch led to a homer for Will Smith, who finished with three hits and six RBI. He gave up three more runs in his second inning. The Dodgers then upped the deficit in the sixth, with three consecutive two-out hits off Ross, and his day ended in the seventh after yielding an RBI single to MVP candidate Cody Bellinger. That was it after 86 pitches. A hard thud.

“Just leaving the ball up in the zone,” Ross said of what hurt him in the outing. “I felt good physically but just leaving the ball over the plate, up in the zone, and they made me pay for it.”

Across the past two months, while the Nationals were on their season-saving tear, it was possible to overlook their remaining flaws. But a great team like the Dodgers has a way of reminding another club of what it lacks. Washington didn’t have a sound starting pitcher Saturday — for the first inning, or the third, or any point of the game — and the result provided a mirror to search through.

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