The latest modification against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park included moving Trea Turner down to the No. 2 spot in front of slugger Juan Soto, leading off with Andrew Stevenson for the third time this season and reinserting Ryan Zimmerman at cleanup.
The tweaks didn’t produce an offensive uprising, but they were hardly to blame in a 5-2, 10-inning loss — the Nationals’ fourth in a row and seventh in eight games — that wasted another impressive outing for starter Jon Lester.
Washington’s bullpen instead misfired again, with closer Brad Hand taking the loss after yielding a tying home run to Phillies center fielder Odúbel Herrera in the ninth and two more runs in the 10th when he and Kyle Finnegan combined to let the game slip out of reach.
Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins collected the go-ahead RBI with a single that drove in Andrew McCutchen from third, and Nick Maton and Andrew Knapp each added an additional RBI hit.
“This is the way I look at it,” Martinez said. “We’re going to win together. We’re going to lose together. Brad Hand did not lose the game, so we’re going to stick together. I talked to the boys tonight, and we’re going to stay positive. Hey, we’re going through a rough time as a team. We’re going to get through this.”
The Nationals’ only runs came in the sixth. Starlin Castro drove home Zimmerman with the third of his four singles, and then Alex Avila’s one-out triple gave Washington the lead. Avila wound up on third after Herrera and right fielder Bryce Harper collided during a moment of indecision trying to make a play on a flyball that landed between them at the warning track.
By that time, Lester had done plenty to keep the Nationals (13-19) within striking distance, going six innings while allowing six hits and a lone run in the second on a single from Knapp. Lester threw 97 pitches, his most this season, and lasted one inning longer than in his first two starts.
But the back end of the bullpen betrayed Lester’s yeoman’s work. Sam Clay pitched a scoreless seventh and Daniel Hudson worked a 1-2-3 eighth before Hand blew his second save in three appearances. Herrera’s blast traveled 414 feet to right-center field, and Hand also hit McCutchen with a pitch before getting out of the inning.
“Nobody in there’s worried about it,” Lester said. “These guys are going to bail us out of more situations than what has happened the last couple days, so I’m not worried about it. Brad’s track record speaks for itself.”
With bullpen failings an ongoing concern, a major boost to the front end of the starting rotation remains tantalizingly close for the Nationals, who are eagerly awaiting the return of ace Stephen Strasburg from the 10-day injured list.
The right-hander is set for a bullpen session Thursday, according to Martinez, after which the club will decide whether the best course of action is another simulated game or additional work at Class AAA Rochester in his recovery from right shoulder inflammation.
The wait for assistance for a taxed bullpen, meanwhile, ended when Wander Suero was reinstated from the injured list following a left oblique strain. The right-hander most recently pitched Sunday with Rochester and was with the Nationals for Tuesday’s series opener before he was activated.
Suero missed 21 games after compiling a 1.42 ERA in eight appearances before he was placed on the IL on April 18. Over five consecutive outings from April 10 through 17, Suero did not permit a run or a hit. To make room for Suero, the Nationals optioned right-hander Paolo Espino to Rochester.
The Nationals used five relievers in a 6-2 loss to the Phillies (20-17) in the series opener, with Finnegan giving up three runs in the eighth, so the hope Wednesday night was for Lester to work deep into the proceedings.
Martinez did have an unusual contingency in place in case of an early exit, batting Lester eighth in front of Jordy Mercer, with the thinking being that a substitute might be on his second or third at-bat at that spot and a better option at the plate than the Nationals’ second baseman late in the game.
Lester managed the only hit of the night among those in the eighth spot, hitting a single in the fifth and advancing to second on another single by Stevenson. Washington left both of those runners on base, though, after Phillies starter Zack Wheeler struck out Turner looking and Soto swinging to escape trouble. The Nationals left 12 runners on base overall and finished 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position.
“I feel like the last however many days we’ve played real good baseball,” Lester said. “We just haven’t been on the good side of it yet, so I feel like that’s kind of owed to us going forward. If we just keep playing good baseball, pitching well, the rest of the stuff will kind of fall into place.”
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