As the ball went soaring over the right field wall and into the home bullpen at Nationals Park, it was impossible not to take stock of the situation and consider what it may have meant for the present and future of both franchises competing in tonight’s series opener.
The two-run homer was hit by Nolan Gorman, one of the Cardinals’ top young players and likely one of the key pieces the Nationals would be seeking should St. Louis attempt to trade for Juan Soto in the coming days.
Soto, of course, was in right field for the Nats tonight, racing back to the wall in vain hopes of catching an uncatchable ball. On the mound was Aníbal Sánchez, who had been one pitch away from authoring his first quality start in the majors in two years but instead wound up charged with six runs in what ultimately was a 6-2 loss.
"Tough one today," manager Davey Martinez said. "We could've made a couple plays defensively, didn't do it early. I thought Sánchez until that last inning kept us in the ballgame. And we had some opportunities to score some runs, we couldn't do it."
In the opener of a weeklong homestand that could include plenty of drama leading up to Tuesday’s trade deadline, the Nationals were again overmatched by a superior opponent. Their lineup was rendered helpless by Miles Mikolas who allowed two runs on six hits over seven innings. And their chances of keeping the game within striking distance were significantly diminished when Sánchez served up back-to-back homers with two outs in the sixth: the first to Gorman, then a follow-up blast to Lars Nootbaar.
So it was the Nationals lost for the 19th time in their last 24 games. If they can’t pull off at least one win in this three-game series, they’ll clinch the worst month in club history.
And then right after that comes Tuesday’s trade deadline, with a number of veteran players expected to be dealt regardless and Soto of course the potential biggest sell-off of all, should another general manager be willing to meet Mike Rizzo’s hefty price for the 23-year-old star.
"Me personally, I feel like I'm at my best when I focus on the here and now," said Josh Bell, perhaps the likeliest member of the roster to be dealt in the coming days. "Just keep my focus on what's going on between the lines. Once that game starts, I try to block out the noise. That's what's helped me during this time."
The Cardinals are among the relatively small group of teams that have the deep pool of top prospects and a win-now mindset needed to be in the mix for Soto, who recently turned down a 15-year, $440 million extension, prompting the Nats front office to at least explore a trade even though he’s under club control through the 2024 season. And Gorman’s name is one that consistently comes up when discussing potential trade packages St. Louis could concoct in an attempt to land Soto for the next 2 1/3 seasons.
If Rizzo was watching tonight – and why wouldn’t he – he watched the 22-year-old infielder drive a ball to the warning track in center in the top of the fourth, then drive one over the wall in right in the top of the sixth for his 11th homer in 56 career big league games. It came on a 3-2 changeup from Sánchez, who to that point had pitched well aside from a rocky third inning in which the Cardinals scored three runs via two singles, a walk, two uncontested stolen bases, a wild pitch and a couple of RBI groundouts.
"He needs to be quicker, he really does," Martinez said of Sánchez, who has allowed 29-of-31 opponents to steal bases off him since joining the Nationals in 2019. "He knew they were going to run on him. He has to be quick. I know he throws over quite a bit. But if you're 1.7-1.8 (seconds to the plate), they're going to run."
Even so, one more strike and Sánchez would’ve been out of the sixth with his team trailing 3-1, his first quality start in the books in his third start back with the Nationals after a two-year hiatus. Instead, the 38-year-old would not only surrender the homer to Gorman but then another one moments later to Nootbaar, leaving his team in a 6-1 hole and bringing Martinez out from the dugout asking for the ball.
"It's tough when you realize what happened," Sánchez said. "I fought with (Albert Pujols, who struck out right before Gorman's at-bat). And then with (Gorman), you know a 3-2 count, I tried to put my best pitch in my spot. I missed it, and I paid for it. And everything changed after that."
It remains to be seen how many more opportunities Sánchez, who now sports a 7.47 ERA in three starts, gets to pitch every fifth day. But until they elect to call up top prospects Cade Cavalli and Cole Henry from Triple-A Rochester – or unless they acquire a major-league-ready pitcher in a trade – the Nationals may continue to have little choice but to keep Sanchez in a rotation that also includes Patrick Corbin, Paolo Espino, Erick Fedde and Josiah Gray.
"The thing is, I feel good," Sánchez said. "I think I've made a couple mistakes in every outing. It happened against (Michael Harris II) with Atlanta. Same with (Carson Kelly) in Arizona. And now here. The problem is, every time I make a mistake, I pay really hard for those moments."