“Yeah, Joe will start tomorrow,” Washington’s second-year skipper said.
When the lineup was released on Saturday afternoon, however, it was Matt Grace listed as the Nats’ starter, or as the “opener” against the Dodgers, with the Nationals noting in their pregame notes it is the first time the team was officially employing an opener.
Grace, 30, had done it before, started that is, back in August of 2017, when he got the nod from then-Nats’ manager Dusty Baker after Max Scherzer was determined to be unable to go on the road in Petco Park.
Grace threw 4 1⁄3 scoreless in that outing, a 7-1 win in which he received no decision, giving up two hits and a walk while he was on the mound.
He did start 58 games in the minors on the way up, but that outing against the Padres was his only start in the majors.
“He’s a guy that’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do,” Baker said that day.
“You see he started, he’s gone long, he’s gone middle. He’s gone short. Basically keeps the ball in the ballpark. He throws ground balls, he throws strikes, and he’s getting better, and so he has pitched his way onto the team and he’s doing a great job.”
Baker’s replacement, Davey Martinez, said he put a lot of thought into the decision to make Grace the opener, thinking about it over the last 5-6 days before talking to Grace and finally deciding to give it a go.
“I just thought if we are ever going to do something like this, looking at their lineup they’re very left-handed heavy, it’s a perfect opportunity so I thought about using Matt and, I told him, I said ‘Hey, go as long as you can go. We’ll keep an eye on you,’” Martinez explained.
“And he was all for it, he was excited about it. He’s done it before. Actually I looked it up, last time he started he went 4 1/3 innings, shutout, two hits. So hopefully we get him to repeat that performance.”
Grace retired all six batters he faced in a 26-pitch performance, as the Nationals jumped out to a 2-0 lead on Clayton Kershaw, then he handed it off to Ross in the top of the third...
Matt Grace’s Line: 2.0 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 Ks, 26 P, 16 S, 1/2 GO/FO.
Ross gave up a home run in the first at bat of third inning, three runs in the third, one in the sixth, and the Dodgers ended up scoring four runs in the seventh as well.
Ross was charged with seven runs total on the night, six earned, giving up nine hits and two walks while striking out seven batters, and Javy Guerra gave up two runs in 2 1⁄3 innings in a 9-3 loss.
“The first part of the plan was really good,” Martinez said after the Nationals second straight loss to the Dodgers and third straight loss overall.
“I wish I could have sent Gracie out for a couple more innings,” the manager added, “but he did his job. He was really, really good. Joe came in the game and gave up a home run early, thought he might settle down, and we gave up way too many two-out runs today, so we’ve got [Stephen] Strasburg tomorrow, so come back tomorrow — bullpen, I think Guerra did a great job after he came in that one inning and gave us the innings we needed. Our bullpen is fresh tomorrow, so let’s come back tomorrow and win tomorrow.”
Was the experiment with an opener a one-time thing, or a potential solution for a team that is looking for a fifth starter?
“I liked what I saw from Matt,” Martinez told reporters, “and he did great. He did it one at a time, and actually was very successful, so for me this is a perfect opportunity because of the way [the Dodgers’] lineup is structured, to do that. Am I going to do it all the time with him?
“I don’t know that yet. We’ll have to figure out who we play and what kind of lineup they throw out there beforehand and then consider doing it.”
Grace said he would be up for it if his manager asked him to do it again?
“If that’s something strategy-wise they see as a good opportunity I’ll take the ball when they want to give it to me,” the 30-year-old reliever said.
“It doesn’t really make a difference to me when they want to use me, that’s kind of up to them and their decision-making if they see it’s a good opportunity.”
Martinez said he ended Grace’s outing on Saturday after two innings after talking to the left-hander to see how he felt.
“I said before the [game] it was what he can do for us and I talked to him after he came out the second inning and I told him, I said, ‘You need to be totally honest with me right now and he said that he was done, so I said, ‘Perfect.’ He did a great job.”
“I probably could have gone more, but [I was] feeling it a little bit,” Grace said.