Four of the first five pitches Brad Hand threw on Saturday were balls, as he walked the New York Yankees’ leadoff hitter, DJ LeMahieu, in the first at bat of the ninth. LeMahieu did come around to score the tying run eventually, but Hand, who took the mound up 2-1, and blew a save for the first time this season, managed to keep it tied at the end of a 24-pitch frame.
With a left-handed hitter due up first in the tenth, and the visiting team in Yankee Stadium up by a run again, skipper Davey Martinez decided to send Hand back out to face Yankees’ first baseman Mike Ford, who singled on a 3-1 fastball from the Nationals’ closer to drive in the tying run, bringing the free runner in from second base.
“He was going to face one hitter, and get that lefty out,” Martinez said after what ended up a 4-3 loss. “That’s what we were hoping for. [Hand] had a lot of pitches, so we didn’t want him up there throwing 30-35 pitches.”
Hand ended up throwing 29 pitches total (16 for strikes).
Kyle Finnegan took over on the mound and got the Nationals out of the tenth before they lost it in the eleventh.
“I just had a tough time commanding the fastball there early, falling behind guys, basically that whole inning until I started to feel better as that inning got on,” Hand told reporters in his post-game Zoom call.
“I just mechanically was a little bit off right there and I had a tough time commanding my fastball.”
Martinez said he wasn’t sure where Hand’s struggles with his command came from, but he said he’d take a look.
“Yeah, I don’t know, like I said, I’m going sit back, I’m going to talk to him and then I’m going to watch some video tonight and see if I see anything,” he explained.
“For me it’s just like I said, he made some pitches, some really good pitches, got two bloop singles where he jammed both hitters, so that’s just unlucky. And then also he walked the leadoff guy which is tough, then he came back in and fell behind on Ford and Ford got the base hit.”
Hand was fine with his manager sending him out for another batter, even though he wasn’t sharp in the ninth.
“I’ve gone two innings this year already, so it’s not weird,” he said.
“[Pitching Coach Jim Hickey] came to me in the dugout, and said there was a lefty leading off that I would have the first guy, so yeah, just didn’t get the job done there. It was a tough one.”
“I haven’t talked to him yet about it,” Martinez said of Hand’s issues with his command in the appearance. “I just know — uncharacteristic he couldn’t find the strike zone, and we sent him back out there to face Ford, who was the lefty, we had Finnegan ready for the righties because [Hand’s] pitch count was up, but he fell behind on Ford as well, Ford got the base hit and Finnegan came in and did a great job.”
“I don’t necessarily know what it is right now,” Hand said was asked to self-diagnose what it was that caused his command issues.
“I think I was just a little bit quick, but as that inning went on, it started to click and I started to get better.”
What adjustments did he make that helped him turn things around?
“I was just trying to execute pitches,” Hand said.
“At that point I was falling behind everybody, almost trying to place the ball, just trying to command it and throw where I want to. A leadoff walk right there with the heart of their lineup coming up wasn’t ideal. So, I had to get it going and I got some weak contact that found some holes, but when you fall behind guys like that it’s never good.”
In spite of Hand’s struggles on Saturday, and his extended, inning-plus outing, Martinez said before the series finale with the Yankees on Sunday morning that he’d send his closer out if there was a save opportunity.
“Brad has done great for us,” he told reporters, “and as he knows, I talked to him yesterday, we get an opportunity for him to close again today, if he feels good he’ll be in there again.”
It wasn’t a save situation, but Martinez gave Hand the ball again in the bottom of the ninth, with the score tied at 2-2, and the lefty once again walked the first batter he faced, putting Tyler Wade on with a four-pitch free pass. He walked Aaron Judge too in the next at bat.
A groundout moved Wade over to third base, and hit a 2-2 slider up in the zone through the left side for walk-off winner.
Hand threw 17 pitches, just seven for strikes.
“It’s just been the strike-throwing,” Martinez said when asked about Hand’s struggles.
“I mean, he’s been falling behind, not getting ahead. He walks the leadoff hitter, and that’s tough.
“So, we got the day off tomorrow, hopefully we regroup, but he’s a huge part of our bullpen, so we’ve got to get him right.”
“Warming up in the bullpen everything was sharp, just the two walks again,” Hand said. “I feel like these past two days, I’ve really just kind of beat myself giving up the free baserunners there to begin the inning, so it’s a tough one the way the team fought back late in the game, but just can’t keep falling behind hitters like that.’’
In hindsight, was going right back to Hand a mistake?
“I felt that that was the right time,” Martinez said. “The big decision, I know it was a tie game — but he threw a lot of pitches yesterday, he warmed up, he was going to come in if we took the lead, but we couldn’t sit him down once he warmed up, so he was coming in the game tie or ahead. Like I said, he threw a lot of pitches yesterday. We had one shot at this to get him in there, so we got him in. It’s tough. He’s not throwing strikes. I considered walking Stanton, but you can’t walk the bases loaded if you’re not throwing strikes.”
Hand said he wanted to get right back out there too.
“I want in there every day,” he said.
“That’s why being a reliever is awesome. Once you have a bad one you’re back in there the next day to kind of right the ship.
“Obviously today it didn’t go as planned, but the next game we’ll get it right.”