The Nationals had to leave a lot of firepower on the bench in Thursday’s series afternoon finale.
Howie Kendrick is recovering from tightness in his upper back, Eric Thames was not in lineup because the Nats were facing a left-hander and Juan Soto is still awaiting clearance from the D.C. Department of Health to return to the field for workouts.
Plus, the Nats were up against left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu, the winning pitcher in Game 3 of the National League Division Series for the Dodgers in October.
Veterans Starlin Castro, Kurt Suzuki, Michael A. Taylor and Asdrúbal Cabrera led an offense that pounded out 13 hits as the Nationals pulled even in the series with a satisfying 6-4 victory over the Blue Jays at Nationals Park.
“The boys swung the bats well today,” said manager Davey Martinez on his postgame Zoom call. “Good to see. I always say that I believe in these guys. They’ll get it. They’ll start hitting the ball. I really liked the at-bats today. Everybody contributed. It was a great win.”
The Nats went 2-2 against the Jays and are now 3-4 overall on the season. They have off until Tuesday when the Mets come to town.
The key strategy for the Nats lineup against Ryu was extending at-bats.
The first at-bat from Castro set the tone for what Washington was trying to do. Castro battled Ryu for 12 pitches with two outs in the top of the first, ripping an 85-mph slider in left field for the game’s first hit. He fouled off seven pitches in the back-and-forth bout.
“It kind of helps me a lot,” Castro said on his postgame Zoom call. “That’s the one of the at-bats that you really have to wait because, especially 3-2, you see everything that he’s got. I’m thinking middle, thinking middle, try to not do too much. The fastball he threw me today, he threw me only two fastballs. They said 88 and 90 mph.
“I’m just thinking middle. My heart is really getting hard because I say, ‘Come on, you’ve got to win, you’ve got to win. You’ve got to take a hit or you’ve got to walk because it’s a lot of pitches. You’ve seen everything.’ Finally, the good result happened the right way.”
The game also began with a scary moment behind the plate.
In the bottom of the first, Bo Bichette’s bat slipped out of his hands on his first swing on a pitch from Nats starter Erick Fedde. The backswing hit home plate umpire Joe West on the side of his face near his left ear. West, who was tended to by Nationals director of athletic training Paul Lessard, left the game bleeding from near his ear.
The contest resumed six minutes later with Vic Carapazza behind the plate for a three-man crew. (West returned to umpire at third base in the third inning with stitches near his left ear.)
The at-bat continued with Bichette doubling down the right field line. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. dropped a high fly ball into left field in front of Taylor and Trea Turner, who came close to making a back-to-the-plate catch. The hit scored Bichette and the Blue Jays led 1-0.
In the third, the Nats got a good look at Ryu to take the lead. Adam Eaton and Castro delivered back-to-back singles with one away. One batter later, Suzuki drilled a double to deep right-center to score both runners for a 2-1 lead.
In the fourth, the Nats added on as they started to wear down Ryu.
Carter Kieboom singled on the first pitch. After Victor Robles struck out, Taylor unloaded on a Ryu pitch to deep center field and over the wall for his second homer of the season. The two-run shot made it 4-1 Nats.
Martinez said he likes what he has seen the last couple of games from Castro as he looks to get into a good rhythm.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve said this before: You know, Starlin, his bat-to-ball skills are really good,” Martinez said. “He can put the ball on the bat. The first inning, he goes in there and it was really hot. To get Ryu to throw that many pitches was good, was huge, you know? But he can do that. I’ve seen him before stand up there and foul balls, good pitchers, foul them off and foul them off and all of a sudden hit a rope somewhere. So he had a great day today and I expect him to swing the bat like he swung today. Like I said, he hits line drives all over the field and today you saw that.”
But Fedde could not survive the fourth. He allowed a line drive solo homer to Teoscar Hernández that went 408 feet, bounced off a railing and back onto the field of play. Originally the ruling was a triple, but the blast was reviewed on video and determined to have left the park. Hernández’s third homer of the season whittled the Nats’ lead down to 4-2.
Fedde was not out of hot water yet. Joe Panik singled and Danny Jansen walked, so manager Davey Martinez came and got Fedde.
Fedde lasted only 3 1/3 innings, giving up two runs on six hits with two walks and no strikeouts. He threw 57 pitches, 31 for strikes.
That’s when Ryne Harper came in and earned the win, retiring the next two batters to get the Nats out of the predicament. Harper got the quick-swinging Bichette to strike out on just three pitches: slider, fastball and curveball. He then pitched a scoreless fifth.
In the fifth, the Nats continued to take advantage of Ryu. Castro and Cabrera unleashed back-to-back doubles. Cabrera’s RBI made it 5-2 Nats. Ryu, forced to throw 93 pitches to register 13 outs, left the game after striking out Suzuki.
Cavan Biggio launched a moon shot over the right field fence in the seventh off Javy Guerra, cutting the lead to 5-3.
But the Nats added another insurance run in the eighth inning thanks to three singles in a row from Kieboom, Robles and pinch-hitter Thames. Turner’s sacrifice fly to right field scored Kieboom and it was 6-3 Nats.
Hernández’s second homer of the game, a solo shot well over the left field wall against Tanner Rainey, made it 6-4 Nats in the eighth. He had four homers in the four games against the Nats.
Daniel Hudson earned his first save by retiring the side in ninth, but it was not easy. The inning began with a spectacular catch at the center field wall by Robles to rob Jansen of extra bases. With two outs, Bichette hit a double down the left field line against the shift. Hudson then got Biggio to strike out to end the game.
Kieboom went 2-for-2 with two walks and two runs scored, plus some outstanding plays at third base and around second base on defensive shifts. Going back to Wednesday night, he has reached base six consecutive times.
“I know what these guys throw and some of their tendencies, but I am just trying to see the ball as deep as I can,” Kieboom said on his postgame Zoom call. “That’s kind of allowed me to swing at more strikes and get into a lot deeper counts. When you get two strikes, I’m trying to see as deep as I possibly can and battle up there and make them make a mistake and hopefully I can take advantage of it, spare off a couple balls or whatever it is and draw the walk. They are grinding at-bats.
“That’s kind of what I’ve been doing the past couple of days is grind them out and see as many pitches as I can see and take advantage of the ones early in the counts if they are thrown at me.”
Castro finished 4-for-5 with a double and two runs scored. Robles went 2-for-4.