Nats dominated again by Alcantara, can't sweep Marlins (updated)

The Nationals have seen Sandy Alcantara enough to know there isn’t a particularly good way to try to beat him. The Marlins ace has a 100-mph sinker, a 90-mph slider, a 94-mph changeup, command of everything and a rubber arm that allows him to keep on pitching all day and all night.

So when formulating a gameplan for today’s series finale, manager Davey Martinez decided there wasn’t much sense trying to wait out Alcantara and drive his pitch count up. Better to attack him early and hope for the best.

"The big thing about Sandy is, we know he's going to be around the strike zone," Martinez said this morning. "You can't sit there and wait, because you know he's going to pound strikes. So, be aggressive early, and get a ball that you can hit. You don't have to swing overly hard. Just try to make good, solid contact."

That’s all well and good, but if that approach doesn’t produce runs, all it does is keep Alcantara’s pitch count low enough to allow him to go the distance.

Which is previously what happened this afternoon during the Nationals’ 3-1 loss to Miami. Despite getting another quality start out of Aníbal Sánchez and keeping the game within reach, they could not push across more than one run off Alcantara, who was so efficient he took the mound for the bottom of the ninth with a modest pitch count of 90.

He then finished it off, ending the afternoon with a 103-pitch gem. Nobody ever began warming in the bullpen.

"That's why the guy was out there in the ninth inning, because he throws strikes and he gets soft contact," said Luke Voit, who actually managed three hits (two on broken-bat singles) off Alcantara. "He gets outs whenever he needs them. It's pretty impressive. He's having a great year. Obviously he's in the Cy Young hunt. Credit to him, honestly, throwing about 10 pitches every inning."

Thus did the Nats fail to pull off their first series sweep of the season, an achievement they may not reach with only five remaining series on the schedule: three against contenders, one more against the Marlins, who figure to have Alcantara on the mound again this weekend in Miami.

"You look at his numbers with two strikes, he's really good," Martinez said. "So you want to get up and be aggressive in the strike zone early in the count. But once again, when you do that, you know his pitch count is going to be very low."

Not that there’s any shame in being beaten by the 27-year-old right-hander, who entered with a 2.43 ERA and league-leading 203 1/3 innings, then tossed his league-leading fifth complete game of 2022.

"He's a guy you want to be aggressive on, but you can't be too aggressive," Voit said. "Obviously that's what happened with us. It was like the sixth inning, and he had 40-something pitches."

If the Nationals were going to topple Alcantara, they were going to need Sánchez to pitch well enough to keep them in the game. That’s exactly what they got in the latest solid outing by the veteran right-hander.

Sánchez kept the damage to a minimum, allowing two runs over six innings, done in only by one of his two leadoff walks and later by a solo homer.

The walk came in the top of the second, with JJ Bleday reaching then stealing second to put himself in position to score on Bryan De La Cruz’s two-out RBI single to center. The homer came in the top of the sixth, with Garrett Cooper absolutely mashing a 426-foot homer into the picnic tables beyond the red seats in deep left-center.

"I missed one pitch against the wrong guy," Sánchez said.

That actually made this Sánchez’s worst start in a month. He hadn’t allowed more than one run in any of his previous five outings (one of which was shortened by rain). He’s now posted a 1.53 ERA over his last six starts, having given his team a chance every single time.

Today’s performance would’ve been good enough against just about any opposing pitcher. Not so with Alcantara, who once again dazzled with a rare combination of velocity, command and efficiency.

"Anytime you go out there and the other team is going to have that kind of ace," Sánchez said, "you have to keep the score really, really close to give a chance to your team to either catch up or try to win the game."

It’s not just that the lanky right-hander got outs. It’s that he got them so quickly. Alcantara completed his first four innings on a grand total of 38 pitches, never needing more than 10 to complete any frame. The Nationals, to be sure, helped out by hitting into three double plays, but they weren’t entirely responsible for their struggles.

They did break through for a run in the bottom of the fourth, thanks to a leadoff walk drawn by Alex Call and a perfectly placed bunt single by César Hernández, getting a rare start both in left field and as the team’s No. 2 hitter. A fielder’s choice grounder off Joey Meneses’ bat put runners on the corners with one out, and Luis García took advantage by lofting a fly ball to left for a sac fly. (Meneses would be thrown out trying to reach second base as the trailing runner, completing one of the aforementioned double plays.)

There was another opportunity in the eighth, when Victor Robles singled through the open right side of the infield and then (despite appearing to tweak something on his hit) went first-to-third on Call’s single to left. But Hernández’s subsequent line drive was hit directly at Bleday in shallow center field to end that inning.

"Hit it too good," Martinez said. "We felt like we score those two runs, we'll be in good shape. It just didn't happen."

And when the Marlins tacked on an insurance run in the top of the ninth off Jordan Weems, the Nationals’ fate was all but sealed.

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