Patient Nats get to Snell early, cruise to victory in San Francisco (updated)

SAN FRANCISCO – Not that their offensive issues could be whittled down to one thing, but the Nationals hadn’t exactly been a patient bunch through the season’s first nine games. Too often, Davey Martinez found himself lamenting the fact an opposing starter had made it through the fifth inning on 60-some pitches, thanks to an overaggressive lineup that wasn’t drawing walks and wasn’t scoring runs.

The message entering tonight’s series opener against the Giants had to be an obvious one: Make Blake Snell work. The veteran left-hander, in his much-anticipated season debut, is notoriously wild. And because he signed so late this spring, he never had a chance to build his arm up and would have to be on a tight pitch count.

Consider the message received and, more importantly, implemented. The Nats took full advantage of Snell’s situation, knocked him out after three innings and coasted to their easiest win of the young season, opening this West Coast trip with an 8-1 victory at Oracle Park.

"I sat with them yesterday for a little while, just talking about getting the ball in the zone, taking your walks and extending some innings," manager Martinez said. "And we did a great job today. We came in, we had a plan."

The reigning National League Cy Young Award winner held out all winter for a nine-figure contract, but his reputation – he led the league in walks despite also leading it in ERA – scared away a number of suitors. In the end, he settled for what amounts practically to a one-year, $32 million deal with the Giants only one week before Opening Day and then rushed to get himself ready to make his debut tonight.

The Nationals were more than ready. Their first five batters all worked the count full, even though only one reached base. The next two drew walks, driving up his pitch count further.

"I think we all knew it was his first start," Lane Thomas said. "Kind of see what he was bringing. I know sometimes he has trouble finding the zone. So I think that was our biggest thing going in: Make him throw a good pitch. I don't think we smashed him, by any means, but chipped away and got a few runs. With a guy like him, that's important today."

Then they converted to score three runs with some effective small ball. Trey Lipscomb singled to left to score Keibert Ruiz. Luis García Jr. legged out an infield single to score Ildemaro Vargas. Then García and Lipscomb teamed up for a double-steal in which both runners wound up safe, Lipscomb nimbly sliding past Patrick Bailey’s swipe tag.

"You want to get the ball in the pitcher's hand," Lipscomb said. "And with Snell being a lefty, he has to turn and make that throw. Once he got the ball, that's when I took off for home."

Lipscomb became the third rookie in Nationals history to steal home, joining a list that includes Bryce Harper and Trea Turner. He would finish the night with three hits and three stolen bases in total, only the seventh player in club history to do that.

Even though Snell managed to settle down after that and retire the last five batters he faced, his pitch count after only three innings was all the way up to 72. So the Nats found themselves reaching the San Francisco bullpen by the fourth inning of the series opener, an advantageous position if ever there was one.

"Our focus was just to make him throw strikes, work deep counts and accept walks. Don't chase," Martinez said. "And I thought we did a good job."

And they took full advantage, scoring three more runs in the fifth off Erik Miller and Landen Roupp to open up a comfortable lead. The big blast came from Thomas, who sat back on a 1-0 curveball and ripped it to left field for his first homer of the season, further evidence the outfielder is heating up after a slow start.

Three days ago, Thomas was 2-for-28 on the season. Since then, he’s 7-for-11 with two walks, the homer, four stolen bases and zero strikeouts, crediting better timing at the plate for his success.

"I think that comes with more at-bats," he said. "Obviously, you get enough in spring. But a spring training at-bat, there's not many people in the stands. Stuff just speeds up (when the season begins). Once you get used to playing in these stadiums again, it starts to come together."

The early run support did wonders for Trevor Williams, who actually found himself down 1-0 only three batters in following a tough-luck, bloop double by Lamonte Wade Jr. on which Jung Hoo Lee scored all the way from first when Jesse Winker’s throw from left field skipped past García at second.

Williams was in control from that point on, scattering three hits and three walks over five innings. At 81 pitches, he could’ve come back for the sixth. But with a five-run lead in hand and a fresh bullpen behind him, the right-hander was pulled there.

And so, two turns through the rotation, the Nationals’ most successful starter isn’t Josiah Gray or MacKenzie Gore. It’s not Patrick Corbin or Jake Irvin. It’s Williams, the No. 5 starter, who boasts a 2-0 record, 2.61 ERA and 1.065 WHIP.

"I'm just happy we're winning games," he said. "We're playing hard. You look at our record (4-6) and there could be a few more wins in there. But for us all together, I think we've been playing some really good baseball."

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