BALTIMORE — Brad Hand stood with his hands on his hips along the third-base line, turning periodically from the video board showing the all-important replay and the umpires huddled near the visitor’s dugout, headsets on, reviewing if Ryan McKenna’s hand slipped under Tres Barrera’s tag.
Hand attempted to keep his focus, ready to retake the mound if the replay center in New York deemed Carter Kieboom’s throw home from third beat McKenna.
Instead, when umpire Joe West pulled off that headset and indicated signaled McKenna safe to give the Baltimore Orioles a 5-4 walk-off win Sunday to complete a series sweep of the Washington Nationals, Hand’s arms dropped to his side. He and the rest of the team walked off the diamond, another loss under their belts, limping toward the trade deadline rather than gathering steam.
“Every loss hurts, but we know where we’re at, we know we need to win ballgames now,” Hand said. “It definitely stings, for sure.”
The Nationals had the chance to add to their one-run lead in the top of the ninth. But they scuttled that chance, just as they had scuttled chances throughout the contest. Apart from Ryan Zimmerman’s three-run homer in the sixth inning, Washington went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position Sunday.
And over the three-game series with the Orioles, the team went 2-for-23 with runners in scoring position, leading to three deflating losses during a key part of the season.
That left Hand to protect a one-run advantage in the ninth — a task he couldn’t do. He hit Maikel Franco with a slider to lead off the inning, then loaded the bases with no outs after Ryan McKenna’s single and Austin Hays’ walk. A sacrifice fly and a fielder’s choice proved sufficient for Baltimore.
“This is a tough time of year for players,” manager Dave Martinez said. “Everybody’s worried about getting traded, everybody’s hearing rumors. We need to focus on staying present. That’s what we need to do. Focus on one game at a time and go out there and do your best to win for the Nats.”
Washington entered the most pivotal stretch of the season last week, facing the impending trade deadline while weighing the correct approach to take in the days leading up to July 30. Last week, general manager Mike Rizzo said the team will take a dual approach to the trade deadline, ready to swap key pieces for prospects or add talent for a potential push.
But those decisions ride on games such as Sunday’s — and the several contests immediately before and after. The Nationals stormed back in contention in June, going 19-9 during the month to draw within two games of the National League East lead. Injuries mounted, though, including injured list stints for pitchers Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross and the red-hot Kyle Schwarber.
So Washington cooled off dramatically entering July, and when the Nationals most needed to hit the gas — with two series against the Miami Marlins and Orioles — they missed the pedal. Washington won two of three against the Marlins, then dropped all three match-ups against the Orioles.
With games against some of MLB’s bottom-feeders, the Nationals had a chance to make up ground. But those games turned into more evidence that Washington is slipping out of contention in the NL East, eight games behind the New York Mets.
“We still got a lot more baseball. I know that we can come back,” said Paolo Espino, who gave up three solo homers in his five innings of work for the Nationals. “We’ve definitely got a great team. I know we can win some ball games. I would say we still have a pretty good chance. But yeah, other than that, I know that there are some decisions that will probably need to be made soon.”
The offense that had awoken in June has largely slumbered in July, and it had been especially silent through the first two games in Baltimore. In those losses, the Nationals went a combined 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position. And that trend continued Sunday against left-hander John Means, even with Zimmerman’s homer.
Means ran into trouble in the first, loading the bases with no outs by hitting Alcides Escobar, giving up a single to Trea Turner and walking Juan Soto. But he escaped with just one run allowed on a force out of Zimmerman. But he settled in, allowing one baserunner between the second and fifth innings. Means needed four pitches to get through that fifth unscathed.
“We’ve done it before,” Martinez said of producing more offense. “We scored a bunch of runs before we got to this series, and it just went away. So we’ve got to get back to that.”
Zimmerman made Means pay in the sixth, and the Nationals held onto that one-run lead into the ninth inning thanks to scoreless work from Kyle Finnegan and Daniel Hudson. Hudson, particularly, faced a high-wire act to keep the one-run lead intact. He allowed singles to Mullins and Trey Mancini before forcing a double-play ball and striking out DJ Stewart.
When his final offering whizzed past Stewart — a 98-mph fastball that Stewart foul tipped into Barrera’s glove — Hudson reared back, fists clenched below his waist, and yelled.
One inning later, though, when Hand faced a similarly tense situation, he didn’t yell when he exited the mound. Instead, he walked slowly off the field, his fourth blown save of the season saddled to his back, Washington’s chances to pull back into the NL East race growing ever bleaker.
“I think we all know the situation that we’re in,” Hand said. “But we’re fighting to get wins, and try to play out this last week, get as many wins as you can.”
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