Marty Niland: Nats getting key plays from unlikely sources

How many injuries can the Nationals withstand and still maintain the second-best record in the National League?

Let’s hope that question remains rhetorical.

But when an infielder who wasn’t supposed to get out of the minor leagues this season and the 13th different man to play the outfield in 2017 are making key plays, it’s not a bad idea to keep that question in mind.

At 27, Adrián Sanchez had been knocking around the Nats’ minor league system for 10 seasons. He’d been hitting .254 at Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse through June. Not bad for a guy who’s been in the system for so long, but not exactly the fast track to the major leagues, either.

But then starting shortstop Trea Turner suffered a broken wrist, and suddenly it was Sanchez’s turn for the big leagues. A little more than a week later, he celebrated his first major league hit, and his first big league run was the game winner in a 5-4 walk-off win against Atlanta.

It’s hardly been a gratuitous “cup of coffee” for Sanchez since then. Going into Saturday’s game against the Mets, he’d played in 23 games, collected more than a dozen hits and even driven in a few runs. His first multi-RBI game was already in hand when he took a Jeurys Familia fastball to the chest.

An audible gasp, then a hush, swept through Nationals Park. A crowd that had already seen Bryce Harper, Adam Eaton and others go down with painful looking injuries this season held its collective breath. But Sanchez not only got to his feet and stepped back in the box, he fought through the painful bruise on his chest and delivered a base hit for his third RBI of the game. Sanchez spent the night in the hospital as a precaution, but he checked out Sunday morning, and the Nats say he won’t need to go to the disabled list.

While Sanchez was still toiling in the minor leagues, Alejandro De Aza wasn’t even in the United States. A nine-year veteran of six big league teams, the 33-year-old was ready to join the Tijuana Toros of the Mexican League. He had played 130 games last season for the Mets after suiting up for the Orioles, Red Sox and Giants in 2015. But he wasn’t in any major league plans this year -- until the Nats started losing outfielders to injuries.

De Aza signed a minor league deal with the Nats in June, and two months later, he was back in the bigs, this time starting in right field after Brian Goodwin suffered a groin injury. He was the 13th different outfielder to play for the Nationals this season.

De Aza had just one hit in 18 at-bats when he stepped to the plate in the second inning of the first game Sunday against Mets left-hander Tommy Milone. But after his line drive got past Juan Lageres and rolled to the right field wall, there was little doubt among the Nats Park crowd that he would cruise into third base standing up. He would later double to drive in Michael A. Taylor and launch a sacrifice fly in the seventh inning for a 5-5 tie in a game the Nats once trailed 5-0. In the nightcap Sunday, he made a leaping catch to secure the final out of a 5-4 win.

You never know who will be called upon in a key situation. The Nats are fortunate that players like Sanchez and De Aza keep coming through. Neither was in the Nats’ plans this season until the team’s stars started going down with injuries. But they’ve helped the team win 78 games earlier than they have since moving to Washington in 2005. Turner and Goodwin may return to the lineup soon, but it’s likely Sanchez and De Aza will be around in September, when teams can expand their rosters.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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