- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 23, 2021

After the Washington Nationals intentionally walked the hot-hitting Trey Mancini, putting the go-ahead run on first base with two outs in the ninth inning, pitching coach Jim Hickey walked to the mound. 

The message he had for closer Brad Hand was simple: Nothing but high fastballs for Anthony Santander. And that’s all Hand gave Santander as he tried to bait the right fielder into chasing bad pitches. Santander obliged, and Hand smacked the inside of his glove in celebration once the final 94-mph offering blew past Santander’s swing.

The bullpen’s Hand and Daniel Hudson were called upon for the third straight game — and the fourth time in five days — to seal a series sweep against the Baltimore Orioles with a 6-5 win Sunday.

“Get ’em up, get ’em in,” manager Dave Martinez said. “That’s what we had to do today. They’re both OK with that, knowing we have the day off tomorrow … It was a big win for them. I’m glad they were available, they both got to pitch and did great.”

Hudson has been nearly untouchable this season, and he hit 99 mph with his fastball as he roared through another eighth inning. Hand has been less of a sure thing, with a pair of blown saves and a 1.29 WHIP entering Sunday. He allowed a two-run homer in Friday’s win, and he hung a slider to Stevie Wilkerson to begin the ninth Sunday, allowing a leadoff single.

But Hand got an assist from Austin Hays, who laid down a bunt to move Wilkerson to second. While that put the tying run in scoring position, it also delivered a critical first out in the ninth, allowing Martinez to intentionally walk Mancini with two outs. That set up the matchup with Santander — and Hand accomplished the game plan.

“I was trying to get it up there,” Hand said. “He’ll chase that one above the zone. It’s always good to execute some pitches there and get out of that.”

Hand and Hudson closed what began with another worrisome first inning for a Nationals starter. One day earlier, Jon Lester surrendered five runs in the first inning before a suddenly buoyant offense bailed him out. with Josh Harrison hitting a grand slam to cancel out an earlier four-run shot from Ryan Mountcastle.

On Sunday, Patrick Corbin gave up four straight singles to open the game before Maikel Franco doubled in Mancini, giving the Orioles a three-run edge. Corbin threw 14 balls as part of his first 30 pitches as he struggled to spot his slider.

But he settled in, especially after Washington’s lineup took the lead in the bottom half of the first. Josh Bell drove in Trea Turner with a single, and Kyle Schwarber blasted a two-run home — part of the revitalization of Bell and Schwarber.

Those two, acquired this offseason, are major components of the Nationals’ batting order. As they slumped to begin the season, so did Washington’s offense. But Bell and Schwarber have begun to turn things around, particularly against the Orioles, when they combined to hit 10-for-22 with six RBIs over the weekend.

Alex Avila also came through twice, knocking in an RBI double in the first before he tagged another double down the right-field line. He later scored on Turner’s sacrifice fly in the fourth inning.

“It’s great to see our offense after that first put up four runs there and get the lead back,” Corbin said. “Just try to pitch as deep as I can in the game there.”

The Nationals could’ve added another run in the fourth, though. That’s when Juan Soto, with two outs and a man on third, popped a slider straight up in the air. He watched as Pedro Severino tracked the ball, thinking it would land in the catcher’s mitt or in foul territory.

Instead, the pop up drifted back into fair territory, landing to the right of the pitcher’s mound. Andrew Stevenson raced home from third, but because Soto had watched the ball, Severino had time to end the inning, throwing Soto out.

“I already talked to him about it, and I told him it’s embarrassing for the whole club,” Martinez said. “He understands that, and I made him apologize to the team. And I told him it doesn’t happen again, and he understands that, as well.”

That learning moment from Soto was excused the next inning. Washington chased Baltimore starter Matt Harvey after 4 2/3 innings, having allowed nine hits and five earned runs. The sixth run came home when right-handed reliever Cole Sulser inherited a two-on, two-out situation, then walked Avila and Stevenson.

The RBI walk from Stevenson gave a cushion for Wander Suero, who entered out of the bullpen in relief of Corbin two outs into the sixth inning. Corbin finished with three strikeouts, two walks, 11 hits and four runs to his name — not his best, but manageable for a lineup that averaged over seven runs a game during the series sweep against the Orioles.

Suero allowed a run, with Mancini’s groundout driving in Freddy Galvis from third. But despite the lack of rest for Hudson and Hand, Washington’s bullpen finished the deal, earning the sweep and clawing the team closer to .500.

“Being the guys at the back-end of the bullpen, sometimes over the course of the year, you’re going to be asked to do that,” Avila said. “And that’s why they’re in those situations, because they’ve been able to succeed and put themselves in the physical condition to be able to do that on back-to-back-to-back days.”

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

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