- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2021

Max Scherzer had long settled down after a shaky first inning, blowing through 16 of the next 17 batters he faced through six innings. But in a display of how anemic the Washington Nationals’ batting order was Sunday — and for much of the homestand — Scherzer’s start was cut short.

The right-hander had thrown 89 pitches. He struck out five batters between the fifth and sixth innings. And yet manager Dave Martinez turned to pinch hitter Yadiel Hernandez with bases empty and one out, searching for a spark to ignite an offense that had managed two runs or fewer in five of its last six games.

The plan almost worked. Hernandez reached base. So did Trea Turner. But the two were stranded, ending Washington’s best — and only — chance with a runner in scoring position during the 3-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, concluding a three-game sweep with another dud.

“When we’re not scoring runs, you’ve got to take every opportunity to try and score runs,” Martinez said. “You got Yadi up there, he got on base. It was a big moment for us, it just didn’t work out.”

That could be said for several situations recently, not just Sunday. But there was even less room to maneuver in the series finale, facing Brandon Woodruff, who entered play Sunday with the third-lowest ERA in MLB. He mowed through the lineup, striking out 10 batters while allowing two hits. Kyle Schwarber’s base knock in the fifth broke up Woodruff’s no-hit bid, although the lineup couldn’t make up for Scherzer’s one miscue.

Scherzer walked Daniel Vogelbach in the first, and a force play left Christian Yelich on first base with two outs in the opening frame. That’s when Avisail Garcia struck again in the first inning, as he did in the first game of the series sweep.

Scherzer left a 1-2 fastball up and over the outside third of the zone, and Garcia smashed the pitch beyond the reach of Andrew Stevenson in center field. Scherzer had wanted to challenge Garcia with a high fastball, but he caught too much of the zone.

“You knew runs were going to be a premium,” Scherzer said. “Made a mistake in what I was doing, in terms of sequencing and everything I was doing against him, and paid for it. Wish I would’ve been better.”

With the way Washington’s lineup has performed of late — and with Woodruff on the mound — that two-run lead seemed secure.

The Brewers didn’t have a chance to add to their advantage off Scherzer, though. After allowing the two-run blast, Scherzer allowed just one baserunner. He struck out the side in the fifth, then struck out two more in the sixth to tally 10 punchouts on the day — the 101st 10-strikeout game of his career.

He had only reached 89 pitches through those six innings, but Martinez opted to pinch-hit Hernandez for Scherzer. The Nationals entered the sixth inning Sunday scoreless for the 16th time this season, and Martinez hoped Hernandez could turn their fortunes.

Martinez’s decision to insert Hernandez almost jumpstarted a listless offense. Hernandez worked a one-out walk, setting Washington up with the top of its order — Juan Soto and Turner — due up.

Soto, inserted into the leadoff hole in an attempt to reinvigorate the right fielder’s bat, thought he also worked a walk. But when home plate umpire Sam Holbrook called the second strike of the at-bat on another outside heater, Soto threw his hands in the air and exchanged words with the umpire.

Then hitting coach Kevin Long had his say from the dugout — and was ejected for his choice language. Soto struck out looking — one of Woodruff’s 10 punchouts Sunday — on a sinker over the plate. And while Turner reached on an infield single, Josh Bell flew out to deep left field to strand the pair of runners.

“I feel like, for the most part, guys are really, really close,” Bell said. “Hitting the ball hard.”

Milwaukee had the chance to add to its lead in the seventh after reliever Kyle Finnegan walked the bases loaded with two outs. Instead of pinch-hitting for their starter, though, Brewers manager Craig Counsell let Woodruff hit for himself.

He flew out into foul territory down the left-field line, stranding three, but he went on to cruise through another frame. Woodruff relied on his trademark fastball, forcing seven whiffs on a pitch that topped out at 98 mph. His offspeed offerings provided enough deception to keep the Nationals off balance, too.

And with a solo shot in the ninth inning from Omar Narvaez off Austin Voth, Washington’s task was greater — and no more attainable, closing the three-game series with three combined runs in three losses.

“We need a little luck on our side. We’ve hit some balls hard. We really have,” Martinez said. “We need a little luck. One of these balls will fall with guys on base and things will change for us.”

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

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