The thought crossed manager Dave Martinez’s mind to walk New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton, coming to the plate with the winning run standing on third with one out in the ninth inning of a tie ballgame.
But Washington Nationals reliever Brad Hand was already struggling to throw strikes consistently, walking the first two batters he faced.
“You can’t walk the bases loaded if you’re not throwing strikes,” Martinez said.
So instead, Hand faced Stanton. And for the second time in two days, Hand gave up the critical late-game run that turned a potential series win into a loss. Stanton lashed the game-winning RBI single into left field, and Tyler Wade crossed the plate to give the Yankees a 3-2 win Sunday.
When Hand thinks back, he felt fine while warming up. But for some reason — he needs to watch film on his outing before diagnosing what went wrong — he threw eight balls in his first 10 pitches, putting pressure on himself for the second straight day. Hand also blew a save Saturday, giving up runs in the ninth and 10th innings.
“These past two days, I’ve really just kind of beat myself, giving up the free base runners there to begin the inning,” Hand said. “It’s a tough one, the way the team fought back late in the game. But you can’t keep falling behind hitters like that.”
That’s what Hand has been doing, though, and it’s played a role in two losses to close the weekend at Yankee Stadium. On Saturday, Hand allowed a leadoff walk, then two singles, to bring home the tying run in the ninth. Then he gave up an RBI single in the 10th before Martinez pulled him, with 29 pitches thrown.
Still, Martinez went right back to Hand on Sunday. Kyle Finnegan and Tanner Rainey were unavailable out of the bullpen, limiting Martinez’s options. Plus, Hand had already been warming. With how many warmup pitches he threw and his heavy workload Saturday, Martinez didn’t think he could use Hand Sunday if he sat him back down.
The result was two walks, struggling to place his four-seam fastball, before Stanton won the game.
“Just not locating it, just not being able to get it to the spots I want to,” Hand said. “If it’s something mechanically or something else, I’ll have to figure that out.”
Hand entered a tie game because the Nationals finally broke through in the seventh inning. That’s when Josh Bell — who had been mired in a 0-for-11 slump that included seven strikeouts — blasted a leadoff double into left-center field. And two batters later, Kyle Schwarber skied a two-run home run to right field, tying the game at two.
The Nationals haven’t seen enough of that from Bell and Schwarber this year. They both entered play hitting below .200, and while each has had his share of big knocks over the first month of the season, the new additions to Washington’s lineup — as well as several other bats — have underperformed early. That’s part of the reason why the Nationals entered the sixth inning without a run for the 10th time in 30 games.
“We need them to drive in runs,” Martinez said. “They’re a big part of our lineup, and if they start getting normal, we start scoring runs.”
With more run support, right-hander Joe Ross might’ve been in line for the win, despite a shaky outing. He lasted into the sixth inning, walking five batters and striking out seven. But he allowed two runs or fewer for the fifth time in six starts this year, keeping his team in the game.
Ross frequently missed high, as opposed to when he’s at his best, peppering the lower part of the zone with sinkers and fastballs. With those misses, his pitch count inflated, although Martinez opted to leave Ross in for the sixth with 90 pitches already under his belt.
After three more offerings, Ross watched Gleyber Torres hand New York a two-run lead with a solo shot. And after four more pitches, Ross started his walk to the dugout as Gary Sanchez trotted to first with a free pass.
“Felt good going into the sixth, but obviously, not a good start there, falling behind and then giving up the homer,” Ross said. “And the four-pitch walk I feel like is kind of indicative of what the rest of the inning could allow. A close game at that point, got to go to the bullpen and try to keep it close.”
The first two arms out of the bullpen did their job, with left-hander Sam Clay retiring the sixth before right-hander Austin Voth stranded four runners across two scoreless frames. But then with the game tied in the ninth, Martinez turned to Hand again. And for the second straight day, he left something to be desired, leading to the Nationals’ fifth loss in six games.