Nats go down quietly as winning streak ends (updated)

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ST LOUIS – The Nationals’ recent surge has been keyed in many ways by young (or, at least, inexperienced) players making a case to be part of the organization’s long-term plan.

The roster isn’t deep enough just yet, though, to be filled entirely with building blocks. There are still more than a few veterans in prominent roles as the season winds down, some of them rising to the occasion to help make this surge possible, others still searching for lost production.

So tonight’s 4-1 loss to the Cardinals, snapping a three-game losing streak, saw 35-year-old Paolo Espino allow three runs over five innings, 36-year-old Steve Cishek give up a seventh-inning homer to Nolan Gorman and 42-year-old Nelson Cruz go hitless out of the cleanup spot.

Such is life for a rebuilding club that hasn’t completely rebuilt the roster with up-and-comers just yet.

The Nationals were seeking their first four-game winning streak of the season, not to mention seven wins in nine games for the first time in 2022. They didn’t get there, falling to 48-88 overall and losing some of the uplifting vibes they had created in recent days with a fairly uneventful performance against the National League Central-leading Cardinals.

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Gore faces live hitters, on track to begin rehab assignment

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ST. LOUIS – It was a far cry from an actual major league game, and it was far from perfect from a performance standpoint, but MacKenzie Gore’s simulated game this afternoon at Busch Stadium represented an important step in a rehab process the left-hander believes will conclude with his Nationals debut before season’s end.

“Big step in the right direction,” he said. “I felt good. It wasn’t perfect, by any means. But I felt good, and definitely moving in the right direction.”

Gore, who was acquired from the Padres in the Juan Soto-Josh Bell trade while on the 15-day injured list with left elbow inflammation, threw 37 pitches over two simulated innings today. He worked with Tres Barrera behind the plate, facing teammates Josh Palacios, Riley Adams and Alex Call.

This was the first time the 23-year-old faced live hitters since July 25, when he departed the Padres’ game in Detroit after only 33 pitches and reported elbow soreness. He landed on the IL shortly after that, and a week later was one of six players dealt to the Nats for Soto and Bell.

Gore has been rehabbing with the big league club since, getting comfortable with the Nationals’ medical and coaching staffs. He threw three times off a bullpen mound leading up to today’s outing. The plan moving forward: He’s scheduled to throw another bullpen session Friday in Washington, and if everything goes well, he’ll be sent out on a minor league rehab assignment.

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Game 136 lineups: Nats at Cardinals

Nelson Cruz Swing Gray

ST. LOUIS – The 2022 Nationals have not enjoyed a single four-game winning streak at any point. Nor have they won seven of nine games during any stretch this season. Imagine how encouraging it would be if they could cross both of those items off their list tonight, with those four consecutive wins all coming on the road against first-place opponents?

It’s there for the taking, if the Nats can beat the Cardinals for the second straight day. They’ll do so trying to keep the good offensive vibes going. After totaling a mere 15 runs over a seven-game stretch a week ago, they’ve scored a whopping 41 runs over their last seven games, producing double-digit hits each of the last five days.

Davey Martinez’s lineup has Nelson Cruz back from three days off with a sore right knee, and back in the cleanup spot he’s held most of the season. Given how well Keibert Ruiz and Luis García (batting fifth and sixth tonight) have looked recently, Cruz is facing some real pressure to deliver in front of them. He’s been better of late, but not as good as others in this current lineup.

Paolo Espino gets the start for the Nationals, and boy, would they like to get him his long-awaited first win of the season. They’ve managed to provide enough support to give their starter the win in five of the last seven games. Maybe it’s Espino’s turn at last to be rewarded for his efforts.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS at ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Where:
Busch Stadium

Gametime: 7:45 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN2, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Partly cloudy, 78 degrees, wind 6 mph in from left field

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More comfortable Abrams starting to put things together

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ST. LOUIS – His first at-bat produced in the first triple of his career. His second produced one of the hardest exit velocities of his career. His third produced an infield single in which he could show off his elite speed. His fourth produced the first three-hit game of his career.

And when he singled again in his fifth and final at-bat Monday at Busch Stadium, CJ Abrams had himself the first four-hit game of his career, capping off a fantastic afternoon at the plate by the Nationals’ rookie shortstop.

“Every time I’m at the plate, I’m getting more and more comfortable,” he said.

There’s no disputing that. After a sluggish start to his time in D.C., Abrams is beginning to look like the highly skilled hitter and defender the Nats believed they were getting from the Padres all along in last month’s Juan Soto trade.

With only six hits in his first 44 at-bats, Abrams at times looked overwhelmed by big league pitching. Through it all, manager Davey Martinez insisted it was only a matter of time before the 21-year-old started to apply what he was being coached and saw the results to match.

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Nats topple Cards to keep September surge going (updated)

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ST. LOUIS – The 2022 season was never going to be about wins and losses for the Nationals. It was always going to be about development, and the hope that there would be more reason to be optimistic by season’s end than there was at the outset.

It’s still far too soon to declare anything in that regard, and the current roster has a whole lot of work still to do to try to erase the foul stench of April through August. But there is no doubt the last couple of weeks have offered as many encouraging developments as anyone around here has seen all year, peaking this Labor Day weekend.

Today’s 6-0 victory over the Cardinals was the Nationals’ third straight over a first-place opponent, coming on the heels of back-to-back, 7-1 road wins over the Mets. They’ve now won six of eight for only the second time this year, and they’ve won nine of 16 for the first time in 2022.

"I think it shows you what we can do when everyone's clicking at the same time," outfielder Lane Thomas said. "It's been fun. The last 10 days or so, it's been awesome."

The results, of course, are welcomed by everyone, but just as encouraging are the primary players who are making these results possible. The young core general manager Mike Rizzo is trying to assemble in the wake of the massive sell-off of the last two summers is beginning to take shape and beginning to look like something worth building around.

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Cruz sits for third straight day, expected back Tuesday

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ST LOUIS – Nelson Cruz is out of the Nationals lineup for the third straight day, still plagued by a sore right knee but showing enough signs of improvement to suggest he’ll be ready to return Tuesday night.

Cruz fouled a ball off his knee in the third inning of Friday’s game against the Mets and was replaced two innings later. He sat out the remaining two games of that weekend series in New York, and now he’s out again for the opener of this four-game series against the Cardinals.

“We’re giving him another day today,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He says he feels a lot better. He’ll be available to pinch-hit today. Hopefully, he’ll be good to go tomorrow.”

Cruz has dealt with several minor ailments this season, but typically has returned after only one or two days off. This is only the second time the 42-year-old designated hitter has been out of the lineup three consecutive games.

Cruz’s absence has opened the door for Martinez to try some different looks with his lineup and defensive alignment. Luke Voit has assumed DH duties in his absence, with Joey Meneses shifting from right field to first base. Martinez has tried out multiple corner outfielders in recent days, and today he’s again going with rookie Josh Palacios in right field and veteran middle infielder César Hernández in left field.

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Game 135 lineups: Nats at Cardinals

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ST. LOUIS – The Nationals arrive at Busch Stadium today on arguably their best hot streak of the season. They’ve won five of their last seven, and over their last 15 games they’re 8-7. OK, so for most every other team in baseball, that would be nothing to crow about. But for this team this season, it’s as good as it gets.

They’ll try to keep it going this afternoon in the opener of a four-game series against the red-hot Cardinals, who are starting to run away with the National League Central, thanks in no small part to Albert Pujols’ end-of-career resurgence. The future Hall of Famer is suddenly up to 695 career homers as he tries to join Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth as the only major leaguers ever to get to 700 before he retires.

It’ll be Aníbal Sánchez on the mound for the Nats, the first time he’s pitched here since Game 1 of the 2019 NL Division Series, when he nearly threw a no-hitter. Sánchez is on a nice run of his own, having allowed only two runs on six hits in his last 16 1/3 innings.

Jack Flaherty gets the ball for the Cardinals for only his fourth start of the season, his first since June 26, due to a shoulder injury that has been plaguing him for quite some time. The right-hander, obviously, will have plenty of eyes on him today and probably will be pulled early.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS at ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Where:
Busch Stadium

Gametime: 4:15 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN2, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Chance of rain, 79 degrees, wind 6 mph in from center field

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Ruiz talks his way into lineup, then delivers

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NEW YORK – Having caught the first two games of the Nationals’ weekend series against the Mets, with a day game for the finale of a three-city, 10-game trip that includes no off-days, Keibert Ruiz seemed to be a safe bet to find himself on the bench Sunday at Citi Field.

The young catcher knew that’s what Davey Martinez’s intention would be when devising lineups for the series. So he took a proactive approach and walked into the manager’s office after Saturday night’s game and said he wanted to start the following afternoon.

Martinez, knowing Ruiz had taken a foul ball off his mask during the game, said he needed an honest answer if he was feeling well enough to do it. But when Ruiz insisted he was, Martinez didn’t hesitate to rewrite his lineup card and give the 24-year-old the opportunity to play again.

“I’ve had Willson Contreras (in Chicago), who caught every day. I watched (Yadier) Molina catch every day, (Ivan Rodriguez) catch every day,” Martinez said. “I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt, see how he reacts today and we’ll go from there. I did tell him: ‘You will get a day off here in the next couple days.’ But I love the fact that he wanted to play today.”

Martinez loved it even more when Ruiz proceeded to collect three hits and call another strong game behind the plate in the Nationals’ 7-1 win over the Mets.

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Nats flip script, rout Mets again to win series (updated)

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NEW YORK – A Nationals ballclub that entered the weekend with a historically woeful record against division opponents marched into Citi Field and emerged with a series victory over the first-place Mets. And all it took to achieve the seemingly unachievable was Patrick Corbin outdueling Max Scherzer, César Hernández hitting his first home in more than a calendar year and Erick Fedde earning his first win in 16 career attempts against New York.

Strange times, indeed. But welcome times for the Nats, who followed up Saturday night’s rousing victory with an identical 7-1 blowout before a stunned and/or booing crowd of 31,711 that couldn’t believe what just happened here over the last 24 hours.

So what if the Nationals were 9-43 against the National League East this season? They’re 2-0 the last two days. So what if their rotation set a modern baseball record with 43 consecutive winless starts? They’ve notched four wins in the last week. And so what if they’ve won only six road series all year? Three of those have come against the Mets, Dodgers and Braves, owners of the three best records in the NL.

"We're getting good pitching," manager Davey Martinez said. "We're starting to put the ball in play. Playing good defense. The last couple games were really good. I'm proud of the guys. They're playing hard, and that's all you can ask for."

None of this means the Nats are about to go on a September run against a daunting schedule loaded with opponents in the thick of the pennant race. But neither does it mean they can’t enjoy a few celebratory moments along the way, making this season a little more tolerable.

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Arano goes on 15-day IL, Machado returns from Triple-A

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NEW YORK – The Nationals made a roster move to their bullpen prior to today’s game against the Mets, recalling Andres Machado from Triple-A Rochester and placing Víctor Arano on the 15-day injured list with a right shoulder strain that likely will end his season.

Arano last pitched Thursday against the Athletics and reported shoulder soreness afterward. An MRI revealed the shoulder strain, so the Nats decided not to wait any longer and placed him on the IL (retroactive to Sept. 2) now.

“We thought at this point, let’s just put him on the IL, try to get him healthy by the end of the year,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But he’s done well for us. We want to make sure he leaves this year healthy again so he can start his winter program.”

Martinez wouldn’t go quite so far as to declare Arano done for the season, but acknowledged he likely won’t have time to return to game action.

“He’s going to be shut down for a week or two, and then after that we’ll see if we can get him going, get him throwing,” the manager said. “The biggest thing is just to have him throw off the mound if he can before he leaves (for the offseason), so we know he’s OK.”

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Game 134 lineups: Nats at Mets

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NEW YORK – On the heels of an impressive 7-1 win, the Nationals now have a shot at a surprising series win today at Citi Field if they can continue to hit, pitch and field like they did Saturday night.

Patrick Corbin was outstanding, allowing one run on three hits over seven strong innings that required only 85 pitches. Can Erick Fedde come close to matching that? The right-hander was really encouraged how he felt in his return from the injured list 12 days ago in Seattle, but then he was beating himself up for a substandard showing last week against the Athletics. After that start, Fedde lamented his inability (or unwillingness) to come inside on Oakland’s hitters, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s more aggressive this afternoon against an obviously tougher Mets lineup.

The Nationals lineup has a challenge itself today in Carlos Carrasco, who makes his fourth start against them this season. The right-hander is 2-0 with a 1.56 ERA in his previous three head-to-head encounters, allowing only three runs in 17 1/3 innings.

The Nats made a change to their bullpen before today's game, recalling Andres Machado from Triple-A Rochester and placing Víctor Arano on the 15-day injured list with a right shoulder strain. 

WASHINGTON NATIONALS at NEW YORK METS
Where:
Citi Field
Gametime: 1:40 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Chance of rain late, 85 degrees, wind 8 mph out to center field

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Corbin deals, Scherzer departs, Nats rout Mets (updated)

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NEW YORK – Patrick Corbin and Max Scherzer will forever be linked as rotation mates for a World Series champion, the two of them accounting for eight innings in Game 7 in Houston, but to say their respective careers have diverged since then is a gross understatement.

While Scherzer has continued to pitch at an elite level and now is seeking another title as a member of the Mets’ elite rotation, Corbin is stuck on a rebuilding Nationals team, unable to right a ship that went wayward long ago.

For this one night, though, it was Corbin who rose to the occasion with seven standout innings while Scherzer departed after only five frames when he felt “fatigued on his left side,” according to the Mets. And when Lane Thomas launched a go-ahead homer off reliever Adam Ottavino in the top of the eighth and his teammates churned out five more insurance runs in the ninth, it was Corbin who emerged with an unexpected 7-1 victory at Citi Field.

With perhaps his best performance of the season, Corbin held the Mets firmly in check, earning his second straight win as he attempts to close out a miserable 2022 campaign on a positive note.

"We've worked diligently with him, and he's doing just exactly what we thought he could do," manager Davey Martinez said. "A lot of it had to do with just not giving up on him. We stayed with him, and he was encouraged by the fact we were not going to give up on him. He's going to be here for another year or so. We've got to continue to work and continue to get him better. ... I'm proud of him, and I'm glad things are starting to work out for him."

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Hernández makes first career start in left field

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NEW YORK – César Hernández, as a rookie for the Phillies in September 2013, played 22 games in center field. He would switch to the infield full-time the following year, and he’s remained there ever since, establishing himself for nearly a decade as a reliable big league second baseman.

Tonight, Hernández will take the field for the Nationals, and for the first time in nine years he’ll head straight to the outfield, serving as the left fielder for the first time in his career.

“I know he’s not bad out there,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I’ve seen him play before. He’s taken some fly balls, and he moves well.”

What prompted that kind of dramatic position switch at this point in the season and at this point in Hernández’s career?

It begins with Nelson Cruz fouling a ball off his right knee during Friday night’s loss to the Mets. The 42-year-old is improving but isn’t able to start tonight, leaving the DH position open.

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Game 133 lineups: Nats at Mets

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NEW YORK – It may never feel totally normal to see Max Scherzer pitching for the Mets against the Nationals, but we’ve probably reached a point now where it doesn’t feel quite as surreal as it did earlier this year. Tonight, Scherzer makes his third start of the season for his new team against his old team, and he’s shooting for a milestone: 200 career wins.

In days of yore, 200 wins was a nice achievement but hardly anything spectacular. These days, it’s quite rare. Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are the only active pitchers to get there. So whenever Scherzer does it – whether it’s tonight or in the future – it is a significant event.

Davey Martinez is trying to put together a lineup that gives his team its best chance of scoring runs against Scherzer. With Nelson Cruz out after fouling a ball off his right knee in Friday night’s loss, there’s a different look to his starting nine tonight. Lane Thomas will lead off, with Luis García batting second. Joey Meneses starts at first base, with Luke Voit serving as DH in Cruz’s absence.

And then there’s this: César Hernández is starting in left field. Yes, left field. It’s the first time the veteran infielder has played any outfield position since 2013, when he was a rookie with the Phillies. And all 22 games he played that season came in center field. So this is the first time he’s ever played left field in a major league game.

We’ll see if the unusual defensive alignment causes any trouble for Patrick Corbin, who will try to shut down the Mets lineup the way he did the Padres (two runs in 5 1/3 innings) and Reds (one earned run in six innings) his last two starts. Corbin already is the first pitcher in Nationals history to lose 17 games. He’s now trying not to become the majors’ first 18-game loser since Chris Archer and James Shields each lost 19 in 2016.

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On Robles' game, Thompson's success and Cruz's injury

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NEW YORK – More observations and reactions from Friday night’s 7-3 loss to the Mets …

* Victor Robles had another Victor Robles kind of game. Which is to say he was involved in a number of notable plays, some of them producing positive results, some of them producing negative ones.

Positive: Robles led off the top of the third with a triple to right-center, only his second of the season and only the 10th of his career. He then wound up scoring moments later when Mets catcher Tomas Nido tried to pick him off third on a dropped third strike to Lane Thomas, only to throw the ball away ad allow both Robles to score and Thomas to reach first base on a strikeout.

“A very risky play,” Robles said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “But he took the risk, and I took advantage of it.”

Negative: Robles broke in too quickly on Brandon Nimmo’s two-out line drive to center in the bottom of the sixth, the ball sailing over his head for an RBI triple that extended New York’s lead.

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Gray can't finish what he starts in loss to Mets (updated)

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NEW YORK – The Nationals are still determining when and how much they intend to keep pitching Josiah Gray through the season’s final month, acknowledging the 24-year-old right-hander is fast approaching a workload beyond any he’s handled before.

For now, the club is trying to manage Gray’s innings by giving him extra time between some starts, in this most recent case skipping his last turn in the rotation altogether. The Nats, though, do want to make sure he gets more opportunities to pitch in meaningful games, particularly games against teams playing in a pennant race down the stretch.

All of that brought more significance to tonight’s game at Citi Field than it might otherwise have held. Making his first start in 13 days, in his hometown with friends and family members in attendance, Gray went up against a tough Mets lineup that’s trying to lead its team to a division title and then more come October.

The end result? Despite some encouraging moments along the way, Gray nonetheless was charged with six runs in five-plus innings, turning what was shaping up to be a competitive game into a comfortable 7-3 Mets victory that left the Nats with a 9-43 record against division opponents this year.

"Obviously, I enjoyed pitching back here in New York and getting a little bit of rest," he said. "The results didn't go my way, but I felt really good. It was a lot of fun to pitch here in New York."

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Gore about ready to face live hitters in simulated game

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NEW YORK – MacKenzie Gore’s path toward pitching for the Nationals before season’s end became clearer today when the rehabbing left-hander took what should be his final step before he’s cleared to face live hitters.

Gore threw a bullpen session this afternoon at Citi Field, the third time he’s thrown off a mound as he returns from elbow inflammation. Provided he emerges from this latest session with no setbacks, he’ll now be slated to pitch a simulated game against teammates next week in St. Louis, according to manager Davey Martinez.

That 50-pitch simulated game would offer Gore his first opportunity to face live hitters since his July 25 outing for the Padres, after which he was placed on the 15-day injured list with elbow inflammation. The Nationals acquired the 23-year-old in last month’s Juan Soto-Josh Bell blockbuster and inherited his rehab program.

All along, the club’s intention has been to get Gore ready to pitch in a major league game before season’s end.

“Our goal, if everything goes well, is to get him to start a game here and see how he feels after that,” Martinez said. “Hopefully everything goes well, and we know when wintertime comes, he could just go on his regular program and get ready for spring training.”

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Game 132 lineups: Nats at Mets

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NEW YORK – It’s September, which means pennant races. And the Nationals are going to find themselves smack dab in the middle of several of them over the season’s final month, even if they aren’t battling for a postseason berth themselves.

Beginning tonight, the Nationals have 31 games left on their schedule. All but six (against the Marlins) will be played against contenders, including three this weekend with the Mets. So, yeah, this is going to be an awfully stiff challenge for a team that currently owns a 45-86 record.

Josiah Gray kicks things off this evening with his first career start at Citi Field, just a short drive from his home in New Rochelle, N.Y. Gray has been looking forward to pitching in New York for a while, and after having his last turn in the rotation skipped, he should be plenty fresh for this one. He’s been on a nice run since he last pitched Aug. 20 in San Diego; over his last three starts, he’s got a 3.12 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings.

The Nationals won’t see Jacob deGrom this weekend. They will see Max Scherzer on Saturday night. First up, though, is left-hander David Peterson, who quietly has compiled a 3.21 ERA over 89 2/3 innings this season. The Nats faced him back on May 30, though, and scored four runs in 4 2/3 innings.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS at NEW YORK METS
Where:
Citi Field

Gametime: 7:10 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Clear, 75 degrees, wind 10 mph out to left field

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2023 spring training schedule brings sense of normalcy

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It’s been some time since the Nationals (or any Major League Baseball club) has experienced a normal, full spring training, not since 2019 to be precise, after the pandemic threw a wrench into plans for both the 2020 and 2021 camps and the league’s lockout of players delayed and shortened the annual event in 2022.

With Wednesday’s announcement of the 2023 Grapefruit League and Cactus League schedules, MLB affirmed its intent to get back to normal next spring, something the Nats certainly will appreciate.

The Nationals’ exhibition opener is scheduled for Feb. 25 against the Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla., with the finale slated for March 26 against the Marlins, also in Jupiter, just a short drive from their camp in West Palm Beach.

In between are 29 total games in Florida, including 15 designated home games at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, where the Nats will train for the sixth consecutive year. They’ll play three road games in their home park against the Astros, their cohabitants since the facility opened in 2017.

For each of the last two springs, Florida-based teams faced only those who trained on their same side of the state, reducing travel and potential coronavirus spread. They’ll go back to facing a broader group of opponents next spring, which in the Nationals’ case means home-and-home series with the Yankees (who train in Tampa) and Tigers (who train in Lakeland).

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Sánchez turns back time with first win since 2020 (updated)

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Throughout this long season, from the interminably long stint on the injured list with a neck strain to his struggles on the mound once he did return, Davey Martinez insisted Aníbal Sánchez just needed time. Give the right-hander time, the manager said, and he would prove he can still pitch at this level.

So the Nationals gave Sánchez all the time he needed, from that three-month IL stint to his first five starts that resulted in five losses and a 7.56 ERA. And wouldn’t you know what happened after that? The 38-year-old indeed is proving he can still pitch at this level, capped off by his best performance in two years this evening.

With seven innings of one-run ball, Sánchez shut down the Athletics to earn his first win since September 2020 and lead the Nats to a 5-1 victory that also included some bright moments for a few of their much younger building blocks.

This represented the first time Sánchez reached the seventh inning in a big league game since Aug. 23, 2020 in a win over the Marlins. The previous time he had done it? Game 1 of the 2019 NLCS in St. Louis, when he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning.

"I knew he still had it in him," Martinez said. "I saw him this winter throwing. He was passionate about coming back, and his heart was in it. He was hurt, and now he's just out there fully healthy and pitching well."

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