Tue, October 26, 2021

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Kyle Schwarber returns to Nationals Park, and his Red Sox score a pivotal win


One more weekend brought a last reminder to Nationals Park - of what was and then wasnt in this season of distinct stages. The last time Kyle Schwarber played here, way back on July 2, he slapped a single, rounded first base and felt a pull in his right hamstring. Some around the Washington Nationals believe that was the beginning of the end, an early white flag before the club traded eight veterans at the deadline, including Schwarber to the Boston Red Sox for a 20-year-old pitcher.

Then Schwarber returned Friday, manning left field and batting second for a team in need of a win. No, Red Sox Manager Alex Cora did not hit him leadoff, even though Schwarber smacked 16 homers in 18 games out of that spot for the Nationals in June. Perhaps that would have been too on the nose. With the Red Sox fighting for an American League wild-card spot - and with Washington filling its duty to that race and its schedule obligations - Schwarber walked twice, popped out twice and struck out.

Boston won, 4-2, to stick with the New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays. The worst the Red Sox could be was tied for the second wild-card spot at Friday's end. They pushed ahead on back-to-back homers off Josh Rogers in the sixth - first a three-run shot by Hunter Renfroe, then a solo blast by Bobby Dalbec. And Washington (65-95), by contrast, pulled within two games of a long-accepted finish.

"You always want to win where you're at, right?" Schwarber said before the game, reflecting on his short stint with the Nationals. "I know that's what we were trying to accomplish when we were here. . . . The injuries piled up, the covid bug hit, and these things kind of were working against us. I thought we all did a really good job of trying to fight as much as we could to keep it off and, at the end there, it just didn't work out. You get the moves and things like that, but it's nice to be able to come back."

Schwarber talks like someone who spent more than four months in Washington. The fans treated him as such, too. After he took a round of batting practice cuts Friday, a group shouted for him to sign back with the Nationals in the offseason. Ahead of first pitch, the team played a quick tribute video, highlighted by one of his two walk-off homers and that weeks-long power surge.

Really, though, is there a better player to illustrate 2021 for the Nationals? His historic stretch fueled their brief push up the standings. He was then injured as they faded from contention, sealing his fate as a rental for Boston. He got the call on a nighttime bus ride from Philadelphia to Washington on July 29, hours before the deadline. In another row, Max Scherzer officially OK'd a trade that sent him and shortstop Trea Turner to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

So in that way, this reunion was bittersweet. The Red Sox, who had dropped two of three to the last-place Baltimore Orioles, arrived with a lot on the line. The Nationals are playing out the string. For Schwarber, who will soon be a free agent, the chance to play into October - to chase a title and showcase his talents on a huge stage - is ideal. Trying to get there against his former team is the funny part.

"It's definitely a little fiasco," he said with a laugh. "But as a baseball player, you don't want anything else besides to be in a playoff race. That's what it's about."

To stay in the hunt, the Red Sox got to Rogers late and mostly handled the bottom of Washington's order. Rogers, 27, a lefty who returned from his second Tommy John surgery in the spring, finished with a 3.28 ERA in 35 2/3 innings with the Nationals. He very much maximized his September chance. Early on Friday, he cruised through the Red Sox, getting 10 flyouts in the first four innings. And in the fifth, he smartly let a high bunt drop in front of him before starting a double play.

Full of boundless energy, Rogers looked at the dugout and shouted a few times. The crowd responded with a heavy cheer. But in the next inning, that was replaced by two loud roars from the Red Sox faithful in attendance. Renfroe cracked the score open, taking Rogers's mistake fastball for a three-run homer to center. Dalbec followed by lofting a first-pitch, sitting-duck slider over the left field wall.

The Nationals had no answers aside from solo homers by Alcides Escobar and Jordy Mercer. Mercer, Carter Kieboom and Andrew Stevenson - batting sixth, seventh and eighth - fell short in two big spots.

They went a combined 2 for 12 with five strikeouts (though Stevenson, it should be noted, made three excellent plays in left field). In the fourth, after Washington loaded the bases with none down against Red Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez, Mercer struck out, Kieboom popped out, and Stevenson tapped a grounder that left second baseman Enrique Hernández to make a diving toss to first. In the sixth, with two on and no outs, Mercer grounded into a fielder's choice, Kieboom struck out on three straight sliders from reliever Ryan Brasier, and Stevenson struck out, too, wasting another threat.

And in the eighth, after Mercer homered and Stevenson doubled, Ryan Zimmerman stepped in to a loud ovation. But Zimmerman struck out lunging at a slider that was well outside. Each instance, of course, made something very clear: These Nationals could use a few hitters like Kyle Schwarber.

Published : October 02, 2021