CLEVELAND — Though weary from the short turnaround of a night game followed by a matinee and a stretch of close losses that could have been wins, Washington Nationals Manager Dusty Baker was stern as he addressed reporters before Wednesday’s 4-1 win over the Cleveland Indians.
Asked about the bullpen, which had been unsteady in decisive moments lately, Baker offered what he called a “strong suggestion”: Score more runs when given the chance, and the bullpen won’t be put in those decisive moments quite as often.
With a cross-country flight looming, Trea Turner made sure the Nationals scored enough to travel happy. By the time Stephen Strasburg gave way after seven scoreless innings, Turner had driven in three runs, all with two outs. Their bullpen wobbled again, so the Nationals needed every bit of Turner’s production.
“Strange things have happened in this ballpark, which is why we were playing for each additional run later in the ballgame,” said Baker, mopping his brow and joking that the ninth inning had left him sweating. “. . . This time it was Trea 3 and the Indians 1.”
The Nationals finished the afternoon 2 for 12 with runners in scoring position, a common thread as they lost six of eight. But they have won one of their past one now because Turner came through when they needed it.
His first RBI came in the second inning. An inning earlier, the Nationals had three chances to score Turner, who doubled to lead off the game, but could not do it.
In that second, Indians starter Carlos Carrasco walked Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon, but the Nationals used up two outs without scoring either one of them before Ben Revere fouled off eight pitches to force a 12-pitch, two-out walk. Then Turner, who has noticed opponents throwing him a lot of change-ups over the past week or so, laid off on two of them to get in a 2-0 count. He got a fastball next and delivered a two-run, two-out single.
“He’s a really good hitter. He’s not giving away pitches,” said second baseman Daniel Murphy, who hit his 20th homer to drive in the Nationals’ other run. “. . . He’s fun to watch right now. He’s really putting a lot of pressure on the defense.”
Murphy himself has moved from infield to outfield at times in his career and has been talking Turner through various moments during the game — “hit the cutoff man, this runner means less than the other one,” Murphy said.
Turner did not even have a center fielder’s glove until recently. He borrowed one during the six games he played in Syracuse, then asked Rawlings to send him one of his own, just in case. He used it for the first time Tuesday night. He may need it more often.
The 23-year-old is hitting .319 in 12 games. Baker would not say what the Nationals plan to do with him when they arrive in San Francisco, where they will lose the designated hitter that gave them the flexibility to play him in center field in Cleveland. If he plays there in San Francisco, Revere likely would become a fourth outfielder.
“I mean, [the lineup] feels different because he’s getting on, and he creates some havoc with his speed,” Baker said. “I was told, like I said, by Delino DeShields that he’s an impact player. He’s made his impact felt in a short period of time he’s been here.”
By average, on-base percentage and many other offensive statistics, Nationals leadoff men have been the least productive in baseball. Though it is not a leadoff man’s duty to drive in runs, Turner has done that. Nationals leadoff men had driven in 32 runs in 100 games entering Wednesday, third fewest in baseball. Turner has driven in five in eight games there. He is hitting .289 in that spot, 75 points higher than the other men who have occupied it.
“You check the runners in scoring position, and we’re not doing very well with runners in two outs in scoring position, which is what the big boys, that’s their job to do,” Baker said. “I’m always conscious of stats, but here’s a guy that . . . with a runner on third, he’s very capable of getting the infield hit and getting an RBI to boot.”
Strasburg, meanwhile, lasted at least six innings for the 18th time in 19 starts. He has allowed one or no runs in nine of those starts, including five of his past six. On Wednesday he scattered three hits and two walks with seven strikeouts and left in a position to win because of Turner.
“He’s fun to watch,” Strasburg said. “I was just excited the other day to finally watch him hit a triple. I was waiting for that for such a long time, just to see him run.”
Strasburg left two innings to the bullpen. Sammy Solis and Matt Belisle combined for a scoreless eighth. Felipe Rivero started the ninth and got one out before allowing a walk, two singles and the Indians’ first run. Blake Treinen came in with the tying run on deck and got a double-play ball to end it and earn his first save.
“That’s my goal coming in: Get a double play,” Treinen said. “We’ve got a good defense behind us. And then game’s over. We won. That’s nice.”
Jonathan Papelbon was unavailable because he had pitched four of the five previous days. Baker opted to stay away from Shawn Kelley, too, since Kelley had warmed up Tuesday.
Recently Baker has hoped for an offensive explosion. He did not get it during this two-game split in Cleveland. He has hoped to hand his bullpen a comfortable lead. By the end of Wednesday’s game, he was sweating out the ninth again. But all season, Baker and the Nationals have also hoped for a productive solution to their leadoff problem. In two games in Cleveland, they seem to have found that.