- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 13, 2021

Kyle Schwarber wasn’t thinking of hitting a home run in that situation. All the Washington Nationals left fielder wanted to do with two runners on and one out in the second inning Sunday was put the ball in play to score a run, so his eyes lit up when the high fastball came his way.

Midway through his swing, though, he realized how high that high fastball really was.

“It’s one of those things when you fire at it, you’re like, ‘Oh no,’” Schwarber said. “But then it hits your bat and you’re like, ‘Oh yes.’”

That “Oh yes” took the form of a three-run blast that left his bat at 105.6 mph and traveled 426 feet, where it banged off the second-deck façade in right-center field for Schwarber’s second long ball of the afternoon. That swing, plus a leadoff homer in the first, were the defining moments in the Nationals’ 5-0 win Sunday, splitting the four-game set against the San Francisco Giants with the help of a strong outing from Joe Ross on the mound.

“Just a great, great day for him,” manager Dave Martinez said of Ross. “I just kept on watching him, and he painted a picture of what he looks like when he’s really good. And he was really good.”

With the offense laboring for production much of this season, Martinez has stressed the need to put the ball in play to put pressure on opposing defenses. He has also wished for a little luck to flow Washington’s way now and then.

In the second inning, Martinez’s wishes were answered — at least for a day. First came Alex Avila’s single, which ricocheted off San Francisco Giants starter Johnny Cueto’s leg into no-man’s land. Next, Cueto couldn’t field Victor Robles’ push bunt cleanly, setting up Ross’ sacrifice bunt to place two runners in scoring position with one out — the kind of situations Washington hasn’t frequently exploited.

“Those plays, you look at it, you don’t think it’s a big deal,” Martinez said. “But they matter.”

And Schwarber showed why. He had led off the game with a bomb, taking Cueto’s low changeup 407 feet. The high heat from Cueto the second time through didn’t fool Schwarber, either, and backed up Martinez’s decision to slot Schwarber in the leadoff spot.

“I always think it’s kind of funny seeing him lead off in front of Trea [Turner], because usually you think of him as a 3-4 guy,” Ross said. “But he’s done great, and kind of like [Ronald] Acuna with the Braves leading off, it’s kind of an immediate danger in the box.”

Schwarber’s two blasts gave Washington a 4-0 cushion, and Starlin Castro doubled home Josh Harrison later in the game. That was more than enough run support for Ross.

After Max Scherzer exited his Friday night start after 12 pitches due to a groin tweak and with a doubleheader Saturday, the Nationals needed length from Ross. The right-hander delivered, becoming the second opposing pitcher to complete seven innings against San Francisco this season.

He trotted back out for the eighth, too, for the first time since 2017, taking the mound again with 90 pitches under his belt as rain began to fall at Nationals Park. But Ross escaped an 18-pitch eighth inning, stranding a runner on second following a one-out double.

That would be Ross’ final contribution, completing eight scoreless innings for the first time in his career.

“I felt great,” Ross said. “I had a lot of pitches, obviously, but I felt like I could’ve gone out for the ninth. But it wasn’t really necessary. Felt strong all the way out.”

The 28-year-old forced eight groundouts while striking out nine and allowing five hits without a walk. His sinker and slider combination helped keep batters off balance. But the defense behind him made several key plays, too, such as a Harrison diving stop in the fourth. Juan Soto laid out for a ball in the sixth, stranding a runner on second.

After a first-inning double, Ross retired the next 13 batters he faced. And when Donovan Solano broke that stretch with a single, Ross went back to his slider and sinker to strike out Steven Duggar on three pitches. He did that often Sunday — efficiently working around whatever baserunners he did allow.

And Ross had run support behind him, the likes of which many of the other Washington arms haven’t seen in recent days. Schwarber’s two homers drove in four runs — more than the Nationals managed in the first three games of the series, with three runs combined from those outings. They’ve scored five runs or more in five of their last 17 games.

That’s been an ongoing problem for the club. Harrison said part of the solution is to “slow the game down” and “let the game come to you.”

The Nationals sit last in the National League East, 7.5 games back of the New York Mets. But unlike last season’s coronavirus-shortened campaign, Washington still has 100 games to work with — not a comfortable amount, but enough to make a push if the pitching and hitting can align.

And Schwarber feels the same way. After Schwarber answered the final question of his postgame press conference, he offered one parting thought: “Remember, this is a good team,” he said. “You guys stay with us now, all right? Stay with us.”

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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