No major league club has played better, or particularly pitched better, this month than the Astros. The Houston staff that walked into Nationals Park tonight had surrendered a grand total of 12 runs over the last 11 games. Not surprisingly, all 11 resulted in victory for Dusty Baker’s squad.
So consider what the Nationals just did on this Saturday evening, and try to explain it. Scoring a run in the first and then multiple runs in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings, they torched the Astros’ previously ironclad pitching staff during a 13-6 win that kind of defied logic.
The same Nats lineup that has struggled so mightily to produce extra-base hits got five of them in this game, including Yadiel Hernandez’s three-run homer, Nelson Cruz’s three-run double and Maikel Franco’s two-run homer.
All told, the Nationals crossed the plate more times tonight than they did their previous four games combined, putting an end the Astros’ winning streak with emphasis and giving a crowd of 22,949 plenty of reason to cheer, something that has been in woefully short supply this season.
"Just good at-bats," Cruz said. "We were patient. We hit strikes. We were facing pretty good pitchers, from their starters to their relievers. To be able to score that many runs, it shows how good of a lineup we have."
Scoring opportunities were few and far between during Friday night’s 6-1 loss. Tonight, they were aplenty, starting right away in the bottom of the first when Juan Soto ripped a double off the wall in right-center and eventually scored on Hernandez’s two-out RBI single to center.
That was a particularly good at-bat for Hernandez, who fouled off a slider and then a curveball from Astros starter Cristian Javier before getting a fastball he could drive back up the middle. And it wasn’t his final good at-bat of the night. Two innings later, Hernandez stepped to the plate with two on and two out and belted a slider from Javier down the right field line and into the bullpen for a three-run homer and a 4-0 Nationals lead.
"Yadi's really good when he hits the ball up the middle or the other way," manager Davey Martinez said. "But when he gets a hanging breaking ball, he can turn on it like he did tonight."
Thus was the latest evidence of Hernandez’s continued development as a big league hitter, even at age 34. A good fastball hitter all his life, he couldn’t stick as a regular major league because of his struggles with off-speed pitches. Now that he’s starting to have some success on them – or at least fight them off to get to a fastball as he did in his first at-bat tonight – he is becoming a more complete hitter and very much worthy of the everyday job he has secured here.
"I've been working a lot on off-speed pitches, and trying to hit better off-speed pitches," Hernandez said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Especially going into this series, being that they have (Martín) Maldonado behind the plate. I get along great with him, but I know he's going to try to throw a lot of off-speed pitches to me. So going into the series, I was focused on that, to make sure I was going to make the adjustments."
Cruz has long been considered an elite slugger, but the 41-year-old hadn’t come close to living up to his reputation during his first month in D.C. At long last, though, he seems to be figuring it out. There were signs of progress during last week’s West Coast trip, and there was some of the best evidence to date of his resurgence tonight during a 3-for-4 showing that also included a walk.
Cruz produced the two hardest-hit balls of the night, the first a 113.8 mph single in the bottom of the third, the next a 112.3 mph double in the fourth that may have represented the defining blow of the game.
"I thought he knocked the wall down," Martinez said of Cruz's double. "When he starts driving the ball to right-center field like that, good things are going to happen."
The bottom of the fourth rally was ignited by small ball galore from the Nationals, who saw Dee Strange-Gordon beat out an infield single, Victor Robles beat out a push bunt and César Hernández move both into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt. Houston pitched around Juan Soto, loading the bases for Josh Bell, who proceeded to pop up on the first pitch and leave all the pressure on Cruz with two outs.
No worries, because the ageless DH delivered a laser of a bases-clearing double, driving Javier’s 3-2 fastball off the outside corner to right-center to continue his recent hot streak. Over his last seven games, Cruz is now batting .400 with a double, two homers, eight RBIs and four walks, raising his season batting average back to .200 for the first time since April 21.
"I think that pitch was a little bit off the plate, also," Cruz said. "To be able to stay on it and hit that hard, it shows good signs."
There were more clutch hits as the night progressed, most notably from Franco (two-run homer in the fifth, RBI single in the sixth) and Robles (two-run single in the sixth), all of which made life much easier on a Nats pitching staff and defense that didn’t have a particularly clean game.
Erick Fedde once again labored but survived without sustaining too much damage. The right-hander, who tossed five scoreless innings despite five walks Sunday in Anaheim, walked three and surrendered five hits in four-plus innings but emerged with only three runs on the board.
"I've put myself in a bad situation lately," Fedde said. "All those walks are not conducive to being successful. But being able to get out of it is nice. Hopefully I can trend better in the right direction and not have to get out of stuff."
One of the runs charged to Fedde tonight was a direct result of a defensive gaffe behind him. With one out in the fourth, Kyle Tucker lofted a high fly ball into shallow center field. Robles didn’t move, instead getting into a crouch as if he knew the ball was coming directly to him. It wasn’t. The ball landed some 30 feet in front of Robles, who must’ve lost it in the twilight. It literally had an expected batting average of .000, but it went into the books as a double for Tucker, who would eventually score.
Yadiel Hernandez was later charged with an error when he dropped Niko Goodrum’s deep drive to left, one last example of sloppy play by the Nationals. Fortunately for them, it was mostly an afterthought thanks to the onslaught of hits they delivered at the plate.
"We had some hiccups on defense in the outfield," Martinez said. "That can't happen. We talk about that all the time. I addressed it. I told them: If we're going to win consistently, that's got to stop. We've got to play better."