Juan Soto has a green light in 3-0 counts because of what the Nationals right fielder has displayed throughout his young career: an ability to be selective and damaging when the right pitch comes along.
Soto’s walk-off single to win Washington’s season opener was a prime example. He knew a fastball was coming. He sat on it and drove in the winning run.
But in the series finale against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday, the outcome from Soto’s latest 3-0 swing was different. With two runners on, Soto saw an elevated cutter left over the plate. He swung. And he popped out to center field, a major let-off late in the 3-0 defeat that secured the Dodgers’ sweep.
The Nationals have struggled to mount much offensive firepower so far this year, a side-effect of missing pieces from the lineup, and have dropped five straight games. After Andrew Stevenson and Victor Robles led off the eighth with singles, the heart of Washington’s order — Trea Turner, Soto and Ryan Zimmerman — all recorded outs.
“We’re playing hard. We’ve been in most of these ball games,” manager Dave Martinez said. “We’re 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. We’re getting hits; we’re not getting those timely hits.”
That left starter Max Scherzer saddled with the loss despite a strong six-inning display, and Washington was shut out for the third time in four games. A late two-run homer from Zach McKinstry off reliever Tanner Rainey pushed Los Angeles to a three-run lead.
Matched up against Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, though — considered the best team in baseball — the Nationals see a silver lining.
“We played probably the best team in baseball,” Turner said. “So playing like we did I thought was pretty good. We just got to keep pushing, keep going. I’m pretty happy with what we did the last three days, even though we fell short in the win column.”
Slowly but surely, Washington is getting back to full strength. The first four games of the season were postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak, with four players testing positive and nine total from the 40-man roster impacted.
That left the Nationals with several replacement players filling in for would-be starters. But five players returned to the club over the weekend: Gomes, catcher Alex Avila, infielder Jordy Mercer, left-handed reliever Brad Hand and starting pitcher Patrick Corbin.
Martinez said he hopes the four remaining players in quarantine — Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Harrison and Jon Lester — could be cleared to return Monday. After an extended period away from the diamond, however, they all could need time before a return.
That could be accelerated for Bell, Schwarber and Harrison, whom Martinez said might need as few as four at-bats to get back in shape. For Lester, though, a stint at the alternate training site in Fredericksburg, Va., could be needed.
Corbin started Saturday and earned the loss, surrendering six runs in 4 1/3 innings. Even with 15 hits, Washington’s five runs paled to Los Angeles’ nine. While Joe Ross surrendered two hits and no runs in five innings on Friday, an offense struggling to produce was shut out despite recording eight knocks.
And in the series finale Sunday — a matchup between two of the 10 three-time Cy Young Award winners ever — Scherzer and Kershaw pitched gems, holding each offense unbalanced.
“You knew it was going to be a tight-scoring game. You knew that they were going to keep it close the whole time,” Hand said, who made his Nationals debut in a scoreless eighth inning. “It’s obviously fun to see two of the best pitchers of this era compete against each other.”
Kershaw was hooked after six scoreless innings, allowing five hits while striking out six. He worked around trouble in the sixth. Turner reached on a swinging bunt down the line for his third hit of the game; then Turner took second on a curveball in the dirt. But Soto struck out on a slider that just caught the edge of the zone, Zimmerman grounded out and Mercer struck out.
Scherzer dominated for much of the afternoon, striking out five of seven batters at one point. To close out the fourth, he caught Max Muncy with a slider. The next batter, Chris Taylor, didn’t expect the changeup he swung through.
“Had some good cutters, some good changeups, some good sliders to right-handers,” Scherzer said. “So was pitching well today. Pretty good rhythm.”
But the Dodgers got on the board in the second with a two-out double that scored Muncy from first. Center fielder Victor Robles initially broke in on the ball, then charged back toward the fence. Battling the sun, Robles didn’t see McKinstry’s hit, which landed at the base of the wall rather than in Robles’ glove for what would have been the third out of the frame.
That was the lone tarnish in Scherzer’s 90-pitch, three-hit and five-strikeout performance. The two-run shot off Rainey added to Los Angeles’ cushion. But with key pieces still missing while facing the reigning World Series champions, Washington won’t put much stock in another early loss.