Nationals

Nationals

It’s hard to put stock in anything this ensemble does this year. Six weeks of the season has provided letdowns and questions, disgust and bad baseball, so little to embrace. Heat under the manager’s backside has increased day-by-day like a stovetop burner progressively cranked around. Breaks were few. Punishment for opposition miscues is even less common.

Saturday night held a similar temperament for seven innings. Max Scherzer threw a center-cut fastball to Justin Turner which turned into a two-run homer. Walker Buehler, the Dodgers’ young and buoyant starter, snuffed out the Nationals offense. No runs for seven innings. He bested Scherzer for 21 outs.

Had the game stopped then, postgame would have a familiar sound. “The boys battled” would be uttered. One bad pitch lamented. Talk of a solid effort against the back-to-back National League champions would exist. Instead, Gerardo Parra took a spot-on swing at a 95-mph fastball with the bases loaded in the eighth.

Parra’s second career grand slam caused Scherzer to scream in the dugout. It put the Nationals in front, 5-2, and six outs from taking the first two of three in the series. For a moment, things felt refreshed, the perils of a 16-23 start stalled because a 32-year-old signed two days prior hit the unlikeliest of home runs. The fly ball to right field produced Parra’s second career grand slam in 4,580 at-bats. It came against Dylan Floro, who had struck out Anthony Rendon and allowed a .194 batting average against him this season. Against the grain, to say the least.

Can the feeling of such a shot last? Not typically, not in baseball where momentum comes to die. But for the Nationals, it’s such a needed respite from their doldrums, it makes Sunday at a minimum watchable, if not enjoyable. Rarely this season has that been the case to close a series.

What the Nationals have shown so far is they don’t like to partner too long with joy. Remember the comeback win in extra innings in Philadelphia? Remember the Matt Adams walk-off win? Remember what came after those? More up-and-down, further sputtering and grousing, a manager fired 100 times over by caterwauling social media users.

Juan Soto returned Saturday. His eighth-inning, nine-pitch at-bat was followed by Rendon’s eight-pitch at-bat. They differed in the outcome, but personified the level of difference when each is in the lineup. Soto fought through a matchup left-hander. Rendon was in immediate trouble once the count dipped to 1-2 after he swung at and missed back-to-back sliders. He took the next slider, fouled off a fastball, then took another slider. In a span of six pitches, Rendon went from fooled to discerning. Those kind of at-bats were abnormalities without them, when the lineup was flooded with four-A players or not-there-yet prospects staring at big moments in their stead.

Washington looked close to whole Saturday because of their dual presence. The bullpen situation may be slowly pivoting, too. Trevor Rosenthal threw a scoreless inning for Double-A Harrisburg a couple of hours before Parra’s grand slam. Rosenthal needed just 11 pitches to pick up a strikeout, groundout and fly out. Eight of the pitches were strikes. Bizarrely, it was his best outing of the season, a token of promise against the formidable Hartford Yard Goats, a task he never anticipated setting out on before the season began.

Saturday’s rarity -- a break and a bomb -- made one night pleasurable around the Nationals. It allowed them to keep pace with wins across the division. Stephen Strasburg is on the mound Sunday. Washington carries a chance to take three of four from the Dodgers. The Nationals just winning three out of four games would be notable without such a stalwart of an opponent; it’s happened just twice this season.

So, pocket the enjoyment from Saturday night. It’s all right. Most of the season has shown it’s not going to stop by again any time soon.

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