The streak ended with a gift from Chase Utley. Before Enrique Hernandez came up to bat in the fifth inning of a 7-2 Dodgers victory over the Washington Nationals on Sunday, before he ended a three-week string of futility with runners on base, he accepted an offering from Utley: A black Marucci brand, the bat model Utley has used for most of his career.
Utley had agreed to loan Hernandez some lumber the night before as a cure for Hernandez’s sizable slump. Hernandez reminded him before stepping into the batter’s box against starter Stephen Strasburg. Armed with Utley’s bat, Hernandez was prepared for a first-pitch fastball from Strasburg, hammering the baseball into the Dodgers bullpen in left field.
“I used a very strong man’s bat,” Hernandez said. “And the ball just went out.”
With it, Hernandez ended at 17 a string of solo home runs for the Dodgers. He also gave the Dodgers a lead that would increase en route to a restorative sweep of the Nationals. After losing six games in a row to Cincinnati and Miami, the Dodgers have won four games in a row and stabilized from freefall. To do so, they won three games in 48 hours at Nationals Park and conquered two of baseball’s best pitchers.
Befuddled in recent days by fallen stars like Matt Harvey, aging veterans like Wei-Yin Chen and relative unknowns like Elieser Hernandez, the Dodgers (20-26) managed to win games started by perennial All-Stars Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in consecutive days. On Sunday, they tagged Strasburg for two home runs. Yasiel Puig hit a two-run shot in the eighth inning and the Dodgers added two runs in the ninth to protect their pitching staff.
“It was a big series,” manager Dave Roberts said. “It was good for the guys to win three here.”
Bolstered by actual run support, Alex Wood collected his first victory of the season against four losses to cap an eventual day. He pitched six innings, stung only by a two-run home run from shortstop Trea Turner. He stole a base for the first time in his career. And he exited after experiencing cramps while warming up for the seventh inning.
Wood dealt with a similar issue with his left hamstring during an outing against Arizona this month. He does not expect it to prevent him from making his next start. He argued to remain in the game but took the advice of the training staff. The Dodgers already lost starting pitchers Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill to injury this season.
“It just grabbed a little bit, same as Arizona,” Wood said. “I think I was fine to keep pitching after I took a second and stretched out. But they just didn’t want to risk, with all injuries we’ve got going on lately.”
The Dodgers struck first. Yasmani Grandal crushed the second pitch of the second inning from Strasburg and delivered a home run. It was Grandal’s eighth, the most of any Dodger. The lead did not last long.
Wood retired the first eight batters he faced. The spell lifted in the third inning. He gave up a two-out single to second baseman Wilmer Difo. Wood challenged Turner with a first-pitch fastball, clocked at 90 mph and crossing the center of the plate. Turner drove the ball toward the Dodgers bullpen in left field.
Sprinting toward the wall was Matt Kemp. He is far from the fielder he was during his early days as a Dodger, but he still made an effort. Kemp leaped as he reached the bullpen fence. The baseball disappeared beyond his grasp and Washington took the lead.
Wood did not waver after Turner went deep. He retired 10 of the final 12 batters he faced. He would have pitched into the seventh inning for only the second time this season had the cramps not occurred.
“Alex was in control all day,” Roberts said.
Hernandez put the Dodgers in front in the fifth inning. He went to the plate after a leadoff walk by Logan Forsythe. Hernandez was hitting .139 for the month of May. He was starting only because Roberts needed to give Chris Taylor a day off at shortstop.
“I think I’ve been the team’s worst hitter this month,” Hernandez said.
In his first at-bat, three innings earlier, Hernandez dueled with Strasburg for 10 pitches. Hernandez fouled off four of them before being fooled by a full-count slider for a strikeout. Their second encounter was brief, more violent and far more productive for the Dodgers.
Hernandez was armed with Utley’s bat. Strasburg flung a 95-mph, first-pitch fastball on the inner half of the plate. Hernandez launched the ball into the Dodgers bullpen. He beamed as he rounded the bases for the team’s multi-run homer since May 1. He used the same bat to take walks in the seventh and ninth innings.
“That’s why I walked,” Hernandez said. “I hadn’t walked in a very long time, too.”
He had not walked since May 8. The Dodgers had foundered for most of the intervening days, before discovering ballast during the weekend at Nationals Park. They can test the staying power of their momentum Monday when Colorado arrives at Dodger Stadium for the first time in 2018.
“Now we go back home and hope that we’ve really turned the corner, so to speak,” Wood said. “I guess we’ll find out here this week.”
Follow Andy McCullough on Twitter @McCulloughTimes