Nats' opener strategy works ... until it doesn't

July 28th, 2019

WASHINGTON -- Nationals manager Dave Martinez has always been open to the idea of using an opener, watching from afar as other teams deployed the concept. Until this week, however, it had not been a serious option for the Nats, as they boasted one of the strongest rotations in baseball. But with Washington’s rotation in flux this week, Martinez spent the past four or five days considering the strategy, poring over matchups and as much information he could find before settling on to start Saturday afternoon against the Dodgers.

Grace did his part, retiring all six batters he faced and starting the game with two scoreless innings, but Los Angeles pummeled for seven runs after he came into the game behind Grace in the third, en route to a 9-3 Dodgers victory at Nationals Park.

“The first part of the plan was really good,” Martinez said. “I wish I could've sent Gracie out a couple more innings. He did his job. He was really, really good.”

This marked the third straight loss for the Nationals, their first three-game losing streak since May 23 when they were in the middle of a season-worst five game skid. The Nationals reached their low-point following that losing streak, dropping to 12 games under .500, right before the start of the turnaround that has saved their season. For two months, they had been the hottest team in baseball but they have now dropped the first two games of this series against the Dodgers, who own baseball’s best record, and need a win Sunday to avoid being swept.

Washington was forced to shuffle its rotation following a doubleheader last Wednesday and injuries to a pair of their starters -- a shoulder injury that put on the injured list and a back injury that has put 's next start in jeopardy. It allowed Martinez the freedom to get imaginative in Saturday’s game, a bit of a departure from the norm for an organization that still tilts old school in a lot of ways.

“I just thought, if we were ever going to do something like this, looking at their lineup, they’re very left-handed heavy,” Martinez said prior to the game. “It’s the perfect opportunity.”

He informed Grace the night prior that he would be making his second career start Saturday. Grace tried to keep everything as normal as possible, finishing his warmups and running onto the field from the bullpen in right field instead of joining the team out of the dugout like a starter normally would.

Grace vindicated Martinez’s decision with a perfect two innings, cruising through the top of the Dodgers lineup with three strikeouts and without allowing a baserunner.

“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. “It doesn't really make a difference to me when they want to use me, that's kind of up to them and their decision making.”

Ross did not have nearly as much success against the LA lineup.

The first batter he faced, Will Smith, hit a solo home run in the third inning, one of his six RBIs on the day and the Dodgers were off from there. Ross relinquished a 2-0 Nats’ lead with a three-run fourth inning and Los Angeles collected seven runs (six earned) on nine hits with a pair of walks in 4 2/3 innings from Ross.

“Just leaving the ball over the plate up in the zone and they made me pay for it,” he said. “Up in the zone is not where you want to be, especially with these guys."

Ross’ clunker underscored the Nats need for depth in their rotation. Acquiring a starter is not a priority ahead of Wednesday’s Trade Deadline, general manager Mike Rizzo said last week, but the No. 5 starter has become a revolving door and Scherzer is not a guarantee to make his next start. However, Washington would not need another starter before Aug. 6 if Scherzer’s back injury clears in time to make his next turn in the rotation after that.

And after Grace’s success Saturday, Martinez could have another tool in his back pocket to deploy later in the season should he opt for the opener again.

“I liked what I saw from Matt and he did it great,” Martinez said. “For me, this is a perfect opportunity because of how their lineup is structured. Am I going to do it all the time with him? I don't know that yet. We'll have to figure out who we play and what kind of lineup they're going to throw out there beforehand and then consider doing it.”