ATLANTA - Draw up a best-case scenario for the first five innings of tonight’s game from the Nationals’ perspective. Now multiply whatever outcome that came to mind by a factor of three.
And then think up an even better scenario than that.
Seriously, what more could the Nationals have done through five innings tonight at SunTrust Park? They scored 14 runs, batting around in both the top of the first and top of the second. They saw Aníbal Sánchez retire all 15 batters he faced in his return from the injured list.
Even “The Freeze” lost his between-innings race to a plucky civilian who made it around the warning track before the former track star could catch him.
The Nationals enjoyed one of those rare nights when everything went better than planned. Well, everything but the final three mop-up innings of a blowout win, which saw Kyle McGowin surrender a grand slam before recovering to retire nine of the last 10 batters he faced. But even that couldn’t put much damper on a 14-4 trouncing of the Braves to complete a two-game series sweep and send this team on to Cincinnati feeling as good about itself as it has in a long time.
“Hey, we’ve been playing well,” said manager Davey Martinez, who held a brief team meeting afterward. “I just talked to all the boys and told them you guys got to feel it right now. It feels pretty good. Have a great day off, and let’s get back at it Friday.”
As bleak as things looked last week following a four-game sweep by the Mets in New York, the Nationals have done their part to flip the narrative on its head since. They’ve won five of their last six, and though there’s still a whole lot of ground to make up, the notion at least doesn’t sound as implausible as it did only a week ago.
After a nip-and-tuck 5-4 victory in Tuesday’s opener, the Nationals jumped out to a commanding lead early tonight and never looked back. For that, they could thank a deep lineup that got production out of every slot, and Sánchez, the previously struggling veteran who returned from a strained hamstring with by far his best showing of the season.
Facing his former club, Sánchez was in complete control from the moment he took the mound (with a 4-0 lead in hand). There really weren’t any close calls through his 5 1/3 innings of perfection, which included six strikeouts and three weak groundouts.
“Today is one of those days that everything is working really good,” the 35-year-old said. “I think the communication with (catcher Kurt Suzuki) today was crazy. Like, everything that I think that I want to throw, he called it.”
Because this was his first start in two weeks, and because he didn’t make a minor league rehab start in the interim, Sánchez was on a tight pitch count tonight. Martinez expected his total to fall between 75-80. Which left the manager in a potentially precarious situation when the 35-year-old remained perfect with one out in the sixth.
“It was getting a little hairy there,” Martinez said with a laugh. “You don’t ever want to wish that he gives up a hit, but I was like: ‘Oh, boy.’ He was fantastic.”
Did Sánchez allow himself to think about the possibility of a perfect game, six years after he threw a no-hitter for the Marlins?
“Yes, yes,” he admitted. “Basically in the fifth inning, when I faced the hard part of the lineup, then come to the sixth inning and strike out (Tyler Flowers) ... I said OK, I got a pretty good chance. I don’t know how many pitches I have. Don’t want to look. Don’t want to see it. I just want to keep pounding the strike zone. And next pitch? Base hit.”
Yep, sure enough Sánchez allowed a soft line drive single to center to Ozzie Albies, making Martinez’s decision easy. He finished the sixth with a pitch count of 80 and then received handshakes in the dugout for a job very well done.
“That was the Braves’ Sánchez that I played behind tonight,” said first baseman Matt Adams, who went 1-for-3 off the right-hander last year. “Him coming off the (IL) to go out there and do his thing like he did tonight, it was fun to play behind him. And it was awesome to see him be himself out there.”
Who knew Sánchez would come up to bat before he ever threw his first pitch of the night? Or that he would come up to bat twice in the game’s first two innings? That’s the kind of sustained offensive attack the Nationals lineup put on Kevin Gausman during its most impressive opening act of a ballgame this season.
They batted around in the top of the first, scoring four runs via five singles, the last three right back up the middle in succession by Adams, Suzuki and Victor Robles. Then they batted around again in the top of the second, again scoring four runs but this time getting a big blast - Anthony Rendon’s two-run triple off the right field wall - along with an RBI single from Juan Soto, who extended his hitting streak to 13 games in the process.
“We stayed up the middle,” Martinez said. “We talk a lot about using the whole field, and the boys had great at-bats today, all day. We got the ball up, which we wanted to do. And they stayed up the middle of the field.”
And they didn’t let up. Soto led off the fourth with an opposite-field homer, his ninth of the season. Then he scored his fourth run of the evening in the top of the fifth, one of five runs the Nats tacked on thanks to Howie Kendrick’s bases-loaded double and Adams’ two-run homer.
Yes, after five innings the Nationals led 14-0. And the bigger story was the fact their starting pitcher had yet to allow a batter to reach base against him.
That’s how well things went for the Nats tonight, a fitting cap to the best week of baseball they’ve played in 2019. Now all they have to do is keep it up.
“We just keep fighting,” Soto said. “We never give up. We come to the field every time positive. Every time we come here to be positive. Anybody negative, we just turn it around and say: ‘Hey, come on! Keep going!”