Nats’ los­ing streak reaches four as Scherzer labors through five

BRAVES 5, NA­TION­ALS 2

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY JORGE CASTILLO

at­lanta — Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als Man­ager Dusty Baker has de­vel­oped count­less the­o­ries dur­ing his decades in pro­fes­sional base­ball. One of them is that qual­ity clubs have their start­ing ro­ta­tion, bullpen and of­fense com­pen­sate when one of the other facets fal­ters over the course of the sea­son. Those are the vari­ables. Good de­fense, he posited, should re­main con­stant.

“You go through pe­ri­ods, and go through streaks,” Baker said.

The Na­tion­als ex­pe­ri­enced one of those for six weeks. They owned one of base­ball’s best records in mid-May de­spite a dread­ful bullpen be­cause their of­fense and start­ing pitch­ing were two of the best units in the ma­jors. But both in­evitably were go­ing to teeter — it just so hap­pens they have syn­chro­nized their stum­bles dur­ing Wash­ing­ton’s road trip while the bullpen prob­lem re­mains un­solved. The re­sult is their worst

Na­tion­als at Braves To­day, 1:30 p.m., MASN2

stretch of the sea­son, one even Max Scherzer couldn’t rec­tify in Satur­day’s rain-de­layed, 5-2 loss to the At­lanta Braves, Wash­ing­ton’s fourth straight.

“Noth­ing lasts for­ever, good and bad,” Baker said. “Ev­ery good team’s go­ing to go on a three- or four-game los­ing streak. Hope­fully this is the end of it tonight.”

The Na­tion­als (25-17) have come to rely on Scherzer for days such as Satur­day, when the bullpen could use a breather, when the of­fense isn’t quite click­ing, when the de­fense hasn’t been all that crisp. They needed the ace to pitch deep into the game, to grab the wheel and steer them clear of their long­est los­ing streak in 2017.

The fact that Scherzer could pitch at all, six days af­ter tak­ing a line drive to the knee and crum­bling in pain at Na­tion­als Park, was a mi­nor mir­a­cle. But he stayed in that game last week and said he didn’t suf­fer any ill ef­fects dur­ing prepa­ra­tion for Satur­day’s out­ing, which was en­cour­ag­ing for the Na­tion­als be­cause they needed him to con­tinue eat­ing his usual share of in­nings.

But Scherzer was fight­ing him­self from the be­gin­ning at Sun­Trust Park, un­able to con­sis­tently com­mand any­thing be­sides his slider, which ini­ti­ated a chain re­ac­tion he couldn’t counter. His ten­dency to give up home runs in bunches sur­faced again, and his pitch count soared. He walked off the mound af­ter se­cur­ing the third out of the fifth in­ning — his first per­fect frame of the day — with 106 pitches on his odome­ter and the Na­tion­als trail­ing 3-2.

At that point, the rain had in­ten­si­fied and the grounds crew be­gan rolling out the tarp. The game, of­fi­cial through five in­nings, was de­layed, and Scherzer’s night was over. The Na­tion­als haven’t had a starter com­plete six in­nings since Tues­day in Pitts­burgh. That’s also the last game they won.

“Just didn’t do a lot of the things right to­day,” Scherzer said. “A lot of things that are a sta­ple of what I think make me a suc­cess­ful pitcher I just didn’t do. Just could never find a rhythm. I was talk­ing with [pitch­ing coach Mike Mad­dux] in be­tween in­nings just try­ing to find any­thing, and noth­ing re­ally seemed to stick.”

It took two bat­ters for the Braves (18-22), who fi­nal­ized a trade for former St. Louis Car­di­nals first base­man Matt Adams dur­ing the game to re­place the in­jured Fred­die Free­man, to reg­is­ter their first hit. It was a drive to the left field wall off Bran­don Phillips’s bat. Jayson Werth, who turned 38 on Satur­day, chased it down, but the ball bounced off his glove as he crashed into the wall. Phillips ended up at sec­ond with a one-out dou­ble, and that was where he was stranded.

Scherzer then re­tired the first two bat­ters he faced in the sec­ond in­ning be­fore go­ing to a full count against Dansby Swan­son, who walked. The two-out lapse cost him be­cause Rio Ruiz fol­lowed it with his first ca­reer home run just over the half-brick wall in right field to give At­lanta a 2-0 edge. Matt Kemp then cracked a lead­off home run in the fourth to ex­tend the lead. The two home runs swelled Scherzer’s sea­son to­tal to nine. They all have come in his past six starts.

“Max is still go­ing to com­pete, whether he has his best stuff or not his best stuff,” Na­tion­als catcher Matt Wi­eters said. “But I think to­day was by far the least com­mand he’s had with his fast­ball.

Wash­ing­ton fi­nally broke though in the fifth in­ning with some help from At­lanta starter Bar­tolo Colon. Two bat­ters af­ter Wi­eters sin­gled to lead off the in­ning, Scherzer tapped a chop­per to Colon, whose throw to sec­ond base sailed into the out­field. Wi­eters ad­vanced to third and scored on Trea Turner’s sin­gle. Werth then drove Scherzer in with an­other sin­gle, which chased Colon, who will cel­e­brate his 44th birth­day Wed­nes­day, af­ter 97 pitches. The Braves se­lected left-han­der Ian Krol, a former Na­tion­als farm­hand, out of the bullpen to face Bryce Harper. Krol won the bat­tle by get­ting Harper to pop out. Then he struck out Ryan Zim­mer­man to strand two run­ners and limit Wash­ing­ton’s run al­lot­ment to two.

And that’s where it stayed af­ter the 1-hour 50-minute rain de­lay be­cause the Braves’ bullpen, which tossed 32/3 score­less in­nings in Fri­day’s vic­tory, added 42/3 more Satur­day. Wash­ing­ton’s bullpen, on the other hand, al­lowed two more runs.

“It’s just a mat­ter of find­ing holes and kind of build­ing some in­nings,” Wi­eters said. “We haven’t been able to build that kind of big in­ning that we were early in the year.”

ERIK S. LESSER/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The Na­tion­als walk off the field at the start of a lengthy rain de­lay in At­lanta. They have now lost four straight, their long­est slide of the sea­son, af­ter a 5-2 loss to the Braves.

DAVID GOLD­MAN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Na­tion­als short­stop Trea Turner con­nects on an RBI sin­gle to right in the fifth in­ning. Wash­ing­ton man­aged two runs on seven hits.

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