Nats flip narratives during 8-2 win over Brewers

MILWAUKEE – Now that the quarter mark of the season has passed, storylines have been firmly established. When they happen a few times in April, they’re merely trends. When they keep happening through May, they’re full-blown narratives, destined to hold up for the next four months.

The Nationals entered today’s series finale with plenty of them to go around. Juan Soto can’t drive in runs as a No. 2 hitter. They don’t string together hits to produce big rallies. They ground into way too many double plays. They bunt too much and have nothing to show for it. They’re the only team in the majors that ever has a batter called out for running outside the baseline.

And then over the ensuing three-plus hours, they proceeded to take every one of those seemingly set-in-stone narratives and flipped them on their heads. During an 8-2 thrashing of the Brewers, the Nats provided a case study in trying the opposite approach for a change.

And like George Costanza famously experienced nearly three decades ago on Seinfeld, sometimes the opposite really does work.

Whether any of this will hold true beyond today’s game remains to be seen. But for at least one glorious Sunday afternoon under the open roof at American Family Field, it all worked to perfection for the Nationals.

"For me, it's about the guys coming out today and performing like they did," said manager Davey Martinez, who did lose his designated hitter to a sprained right ankle in the fourth inning. "For the most part, we played good baseball, hitting-wise."

Seeking some kind of change that might inject some life into a moribund lineup, Martinez decided to move Soto down to the No. 3 spot for the first time this season, with catcher Keibert Ruiz bumped up to No. 2 for the first time. Soto would wind up going 1-for-5 but drove in two runs with a sharp single to center, only his third hit in 29 at-bats with runners in scoring position this season. Ruiz, meanwhile, stayed hot with an RBI double to left moments before Soto’s clutch hit.

"They had opportunities to drive in runs, and they did," Martinez said. "That was big for us. I wanted to try something different. Today, they drove in some runs. Hopefully they continue to do that."

That was merely a small portion of a sustained rally in the top of the fourth that saw the Nationals’ first eight batters of the inning all record a hit to tie a club record, saw six of them come around to score to set a new season high and saw Dee Strange-Gordon and César Hernández become the first players in club history to successfully deliver back-to-back RBI bunts.

Yes, back-to-back safety squeezes, only two nights after Martinez was left muttering to himself after three of his batters unsuccessfully attempted to bunt in succession.

"Every time I go up to hit, I look at the situation. I've got to be prepared for whatever could come my way, to get on (base) or help the team win whatever way possible," Hernández said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "I saw the second baseman playing back, and I got the sign, so I knew it was a good opportunity."

The six-run rally also included Yadiel Hernandez’s single to beat the Brewers’ infield shift, Maikel Franco’s subsequent hit-and-run single through the vacant right side of the infield with Hernandez running on the play and Lane Thomas’ second of two RBI doubles in the game.

"I feel like I just see the ball well here," said Thomas, who also tripled Friday and homered Saturday. "And I figured out some timing stuff, getting on back of my legs and seeing the ball a little deeper. Hopefully that stays on track, too."

The only negative development during that rally was Cruz's injury, sustained when he tried to stretch a single to right into a double. Martinez said the 41-year-old sprained his right ankle on the play and categorized his status as "day-to-day," though he said there are no immediate plans to call up a position player from Triple-A before Monday night's game against the Dodgers.

The busted narratives applied to the other side of the ball as well. Aaron Sanchez threw only 46 of his 89 pitches for strikes but managed to keep Milwaukee off the scoreboard until the bottom of the fifth, when Tyrone Taylor homered to center and Jace Peterson scored on a bases-loaded fielder’s choice by Andrew McCutchen that would’ve been an inning-ending double play if César Hernández hadn’t lost his grip on the ball trying to make the turn at second base.

That was the only time the Nats infield failed to turn two today, though. They pulled off three double plays in the game’s first four innings, each of them going 4-6-3, each of them helping bail Sanchez out of potential trouble.

"I've always known my game is I'm one pitch away from getting out of stuff," the right-hander said. "Even when there's traffic on the bases, I try to stay focused on what I'm trying to do. And obviously, having the ball on the ground today was a big part of what I was trying to accomplish."

When he wasn’t helped out by his defense, Sanchez was helped out by the kind of umpiring call that historically has only gone against the Nationals. With a runner on first and nobody out in the third, Peterson tried to beat out a bunt along the first base line. But when he swerved to elude Josh Bell’s tag, Peterson was immediately called out by C.B. Bucknor for running out of the baseline. In other words, the infamous Trea Turner play from the 2019 World Series (and again in 2021 at Wrigley Field).

Hey, on this afternoon, past history meant nothing. The Nats flipped the narrative around for once, and boy did it feel good for everyone in the visitors’ dugout.

"We've just kind of been saving all our hits for one game right now," Thomas said. "Maybe that will spark something. Maybe we can get some wins over the next few weeks and get back in it."

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