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Scherzer's gem not enough to secure win

@JamalCollier
April 14, 2019

WASHINGTON -- The first few weeks of the season have sent the Nationals scrambling to find reliable arms in relief, forcing manager Dave Martinez to lean on anyone pitching well to try to close out tight games late. Wander Suero has become the latest player elevated to high leverage situations,

WASHINGTON -- The first few weeks of the season have sent the Nationals scrambling to find reliable arms in relief, forcing manager Dave Martinez to lean on anyone pitching well to try to close out tight games late. Wander Suero has become the latest player elevated to high leverage situations, his 1-2-3 appearance in the eighth inning the day prior earning him a chance to pitch the ninth inning of a tie game on Sunday afternoon.

Yet, Suero became the latest Nationals reliever to falter with the game on the line. He issued a leadoff walk to Josh Bell to start the inning and with two outs, hung a curveball that Jason Martin swatted into left field for a ground-rule double, the difference in the Nationals’ 4-3 loss in the series finale.

“Just couldn’t bury the last pitch,” Martinez said. “He’s been pitching well. He had the hot hand and I felt like he could get lefties and righties out.”

Sunday’s game was particularly challenging for Martinez to navigate. His bullpen owns a 7.75 ERA, the highest in the Majors, and Washington was without its most steady reliever, closer Sean Doolittle, unavailable after pitching in back-to-back games this weekend.

At the start of the season, the plan was for Trevor Rosenthal to be the next man up in these situations, but Rosenthal has been struggling on the mound to start the year and the Nats are not comfortable putting him into high leverage situations at the moment. Justin Miller earned his way into the primary setup man role after he started the year with four straight relief outings, but he landed on the injured list with a lower back strain this weekend.

So, on Sunday the Nationals pushed Max Scherzer deep into the game, allowing him to hit for himself in a tie game with one out and nobody on in the seventh inning. Scherzer had only thrown 85 pitches up until that point, and he rewarded the Nats for sticking with him, not only with a one-out single in the seventh, but by finishing the eighth inning with the score still knotted at three.

Nationals starters have been excellent this season and especially this weekend when Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez and Scherzer all went at least seven innings. Still, the Nats dropped two out of three and needed late heroics Saturday to salvage that win.

Even though the Pirates were set to send four straight left-handed batters to the plate to begin the ninth, including switch-hitter Melky Cabrera, Martinez turned to Suero. The other left-handed options in the bullpen might not have inspired much more confidence. Tony Sipp (18.00 ERA) and Matt Grace (10.13 ERA) have both pitched in eight of the first 14 games this season. Suero, on the other hand, had not surrendered a run in his five most recent appearances (4 1/3 innings with five strikeouts).

However, Suero could not get the job done pitching for the second straight day and eventually left a hanging curveball up to Martin. Suero said catcher Yan Gomes decided to call the curveball, even though Martinez deemed it his “fourth-best pitch” behind Suero’s cutter, changeup and fastball he throws less than five percent of the time.

“I was trying to locate it a little differently,” Suero said through team interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I was trying to get it on the dirt for him to chase it. Unfortunately I hung it just a little bit and he made good contact.”

Good contact that led to another late game loss for the Nationals, who are left wondering where in their bullpen they can turn next.

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.