It’s a tough ask for any pitcher to come up to the big leagues and make a spot start. You’re usually facing an unfamiliar lineup and have done little preparation.
But Aaron Sanchez has been around the block a few times over his seven-year major league career. He had pitched in 159 games while making 103 starts with the Blue Jays, Astros and Giants before making his Nationals debut this afternoon.
And he’s familiar with his opponent, the Giants, who he pitched for last season, while also being on one extra day of rest from his last start with Triple-A Rochester on Sunday. So Nationals manager Davey Martinez liked the matchup for Sanchez to make a spot start.
Sanchez pitched admirably in this opportunity, but was done in by the bookends of his outing that only lasted 4 ⅓ innings en route to a 5-2 loss in front of 27,799 fans on a beautiful 73 degree day in the District.
"I thought I threw the ball well," Sanchez said in front of his new locker at Nationals Park after the game. "Early, they got a couple of hits that found holes. Mostly throughout most of the game, I felt like they found holes. Maybe two to three hard hit balls. But that's baseball. I felt like maybe in the fifth pitch selection could have been a little different now going back and looking at it. But I thought, for the most part, I threw the ball well."
The 29-year-old did run into trouble early. After getting two outs on just four pitches to start the game, Sanchez surrendered a walk and back-to-back singles to give the Giants a quick 1-0 lead.
He proceeded to cruise through the next three innings, retiring all nine batters he faced in order and sitting at just 47 pitches. It appeared he was set up nicely for a deep run into this outing, with Martinez confirming before the game that the starter wasn’t on any sort of pitch count restrictions.
But things unraveled for the veteran in the fifth. Sanchez allowed a double to right field and a comeback single off himself to set up Luis González's first career RBI with a sacrifice fly to left. Then González swiped second base and scored on Curt Casali's single to make it 3-0 Giants and knock Sanchez out of the game.
Martinez called upon southpaw Sam Clay to face the lefty-heavy top of the Giants order, but San Francisco manager Gabe Kapler countered with right-handed pinch-hitter Austin Slater. Clay gave up two hits and hit a batter to allow the Giants to run the score up to 5-0 before the inning was over.
"He was cruising along there. He threw the ball well, really well," Martinez said of Sanchez's debut with the Nats. "In the fifth inning, the ball got up a little bit on him. And when you're a sinker ball pitcher, you got to keep the ball down. The ball was up a little bit and I thought that was that was good (for the day). So I liked what I saw out of him. And if you can continue to give us innings, and he's gonna get better, he's gonna get stronger. But he looked good. I was pleased with the way threw the ball."
Sanchez’s final line in his Nats debut: 4 ⅓ innings, six hits, four runs, one walk and one strikeout on 64 pitches, 43 for strikes.
Is that enough to earn him another start in the rotation? With Patrick Corbin only going 2 ⅔ and 1 ⅓ in half of his starts so far, it has to be under consideration for Martinez.
"Yeah, I think he will," said the manager.
Sanchez, who was unusually lively in the clubhouse this morning for a pitcher about to make a start, is thankful for another opportunity to pitch in the big leagues.
"I mean, you can't control that. So you control what you can control," Sanchez said about the decision to give him another start. "And obviously hearing that, it keeps the juices flowing. I've always known this is where I belong and I'm thankful for Washington for giving me that opportunity. You know, the last few years if you look at some of my numbers on paper, some teams have written me off and these guys gave me a chance to put a jersey back on. And not only put a jersey on, but to be back in the big leagues, so I can't thank Washington enough. I can't say enough good things about them."
Meanwhile, the aforementioned injury bug did bite again today, as Josh Bell left the game early for the second time this week. This time it was right hamstring tightness that caused the quick departure. Bell drew a leadoff walk in the second inning, but then couldn’t go from first to third on Maikel Franco’s single to right field. He seemed to have plenty of time to advance past second, but pulled up at the bag. César Hernández, batting sixth for the first time this season, grounded into a double play and Alcides Escobar flew out to center to end the inning, with Bell not scoring and jogging toward the dugout.
Bell left Wednesday's game against the Diamondbacks in the fourth inning with tightness in his left knee, but was cautiously optimistic in talking to the media afterwards that it wasn’t serious. His MRI came back clean and he's been in the lineup ever since.
"He's got right hamstring tightness," Martinez said of Bell's most recent injury. "So we took him out and he went to go get an MRI, we're waiting for him to get back with the results. I want to be cautious with the other leg with his knee. So I just want to make sure he's okay."
Franco took over first base to start the third inning with Lucius Fox coming off the bench to play third and bat fourth in Bell’s place.
The Nationals’ scoring came in the bottom half of the fifth inning, via a solo home run by Riley Adams and an RBI single by Lane Thomas, who had struck out looking in his previous two at-bats to begin his first game as the leadoff hitter this season.
"Yeah, felt good," Adams said of his homer off Giants starter Alex Wood. "Wood's got a little funky delivery, kind of a three-quarter cross-body. So I was kind of, honestly, just looking for the ball out and with two strikes just trying to protect and put a good swing on the ball and that's it. So felt good to find the barrel there."
That was the only barrel the Nats really managed today. Even with the change in the leadoff spot, the top of the order struggled again. The top four batters (Thomas, Juan Soto, Nelson Cruz, Bell/Fox) collectively went 1-for-15 with seven strikeouts. Bell walked in his only plate appearance before being replaced by Fox and Thomas delivered the only hit.
"I just want to see if we can jumpstart Lane a little bit," Martinez said of putting Thomas in the leadoff spot. "He did well for us in the leadoff spot. And also too, I talked to César last night about letting him relax a little bit and not trying to put so much pressure on him trying to get on base and just swing the bat. And he did well today. I mean, they both did well. So we'll see what happens tomorrow."
Even if Thomas doesn't remain in the leadoff spot, Soto and Cruz haven't done much damage in the No. 2 and No. 3 holes, respectively, either. But Martinez continues to preach patience with his sluggers.
"I think we need to just start relaxing," the skipper said of the top of his lineup. "And like I say, stay up the middle of the field. I mean, these guys are gonna hit. These guys have hit their whole careers; they're gonna hit. So you know, just don't try to do too much. Stay in the zone and take your walks. I preach all the time, 'Hey, take your walks, get on base for the next guy. Don't chase.' But I got all confidence in the world that those guys will hit. If we continue to do what we're doing in the bottom part of our lineup, which we're getting on base, so I like that. So just a matter of time before the whole lot starts clicking and we start scoring runs again."
The Nats are now 6-11 and have lost four straight since Tuesday's doubleheader sweep. But just two weeks into the season, it’s still too early for the Nationals to panic. However, they’re getting close.
Outside of Josiah Gray and Joan Adon, the starting pitchers aren’t getting deep into games. Fortunately, those two are the next starting pitchers for the Nats, with Adon starting Sunday's finale against the Giants and Gray starting Tuesday's series opener against the Marlins.
And aside from a few flare ups, the offense hasn’t caught fire.
There’s still time, but early in the season, the Nats haven’t been able to put all of the pieces together on a consistent basis.