Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer gave up more homers than normal and center fielder Bryce Harper took far more pitches than is usually the case on Thursday night against the Baltimore Orioles.
The numbers still added up to a 4-2 win for the Nationals over the Orioles as rookie teen sensation Juan Soto drove in two runs to break a tie in the last of the eighth before a crowd of 36,868 at Nationals Park. Soto now has 16 RBI in his first 28 games in the majors.
The Nationals (40-33) won two of three games in the series and five of six this season against the Orioles, who fell to a league-worst 21-52. Sean Doolittle pitched the ninth for the save and Soto caught the final out — of course.
Washington had a chance to take the lead in the seventh but Wilmer Difo, who had tripled, was thrown out at the plate trying to score on a flyout to right by pinch-hitter Daniel Murphy.
Harper, batting leadoff for the 10th time this year, entered the game averaging 3.97 pitches per plate appearance in his career and 3.99 this season.
“Take your walks,” was the message from manager Dave Martinez.
And Harper followed orders, as he walked on nine pitches in the first, hit a sacrifice fly on the third pitch in the third, walked again in the fifth on seven pitches and doubled on the sixth pitch to lead off the eighth. Harper went to third on a single by Trea Turner and they both scored when Soto laced a double to left-center.
Hitting .209 at game time, Harper saw 25 pitches in four trips to the plate – far above his career and season average.
Scherzer went seven innings, struck out nine and gave up two runs, including two homers. He has given up 10 homers this year. Scherzer has allowed homers in his last three starts and he allowed more than one homer in a game for the first time since June 21, 2017 when he gave up three to Arizona.
But this time, Scherzer got some offensive support as Anthony Rendon tied the game at 2-2 with a solo homer in the sixth off Orioles starter Kevin Gausman, who allowed two runs in six innings.
The Orioles’ Mark Trumbo had gone deep off Scherzer in the fourth to give the Birds a 2-1 advantage.
Harper had tied the game at 1-1 in the third with his sacrifice fly. It was the first run in 19 innings the Nationals scored with Scherzer on the mound.
The Orioles took a 1-0 lead in the second when Colby Rasmus hit a solo homer with one out after Scherzer had fanned three batters in a row. It was the first homer for Rasmus since June 11, 2017.
Scherzer had lost his previous two starts, both by a 2-0 score as he gave up a homer in each game. He had not lost three games in a row since 2015.
The Nationals have been blanked five times this month, including four times in the last 10 games.
So Martinez switched up his lineup again Thursday, moving slumping Harper to leadoff and putting rookie left fielder Soto in the cleanup spot for the first time in 28 big league games.
Harper entered the Thursday with a league-high 19 homers with 53 walks and 72 strikeouts. But in the previous 15 games he had five walks and 21 strikeouts. In the previous 30 games Harper had 12 walks and 43 strikeouts and was batting .177.
The Nationals are 9-1 when Harper bats leadoff.
Martinez said he stayed at Nationals Park late into the night early Thursday talking to bench coach Chip Hale, hitting coach Kevin Long and others about a possible lineup.
“We all stayed for quite a while after the game. I like the lineup today. I really do,” Martinez said.
As long as that lineup has Soto, the Nationals have a chance to win these days. Soto hit three homers in a week against the Yankees recently.
Newly-acquired reliever Kelvin Herrera threw the eighth inning and picked up the win for the Nationals.
The Nationals begin a series at home Friday against the Philadelphia Phillies. Right-hander Tanner Roark (3-7, 3.87) will start for the Nationals in the first game against Zach Eflin (4-2, 3.43).
Washington’s Erick Fedde (0-2, 5.63) will start Saturday at 4:05 p.m. against Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola (8-2, 2.55) in a battle of 2014 first-round draft picks. Washington rookie Jefry Rodriguez (0-0, 4.66) will start Sunday at 8:07 p.m. against Nick Pivetta (4-6, 4.08), a former Nationals minor leaguer.
NOTES: It was University of Maryland night at Nationals Park … Washington’s Michael A. Taylor extended his hitting streak to 12 games with an infield single in the fourth.