The double blow of Aníbal Sánchez walking off the field with a hamstring injury in the top of the second and Erick Fedde then giving up four runs in the span of two pitches in the top of the third this afternoon had to send shivers up and down South Capitol Street.
Just when you thought the Nationals might be on their way to their first back-to-back wins in a month, here they were dealing with yet another key injury and yet another bullpen implosion.
And then the home team did something it rarely has done during this trying season: It gave everyone reason to back away from the panic button.
A lineup that had been unable to score in more than one inning per game? It added three more runs, thanks to the production of veterans Gerardo Parra and Kurt Suzuki. And a bullpen that had been unable to do anything without striking fear into the hearts of anyone who cares about this team? It churned out five scoreless innings to overcome Sánchez’s early departure before Sean Doolittle overcame a shaky ninth inning to seal the Nationals’ 7-6 victory over the Mets.
Yes, the Nats have won back-to-back games for the first time since April 17-18 against the Giants. And, yes, they’ve won their first series since that three-game set with San Francisco a full month ago.
“That’s what I tell these guys: You have to pick each other up every now and then,” manager Davey Martinez said. “It’s not always going to be pretty, but the next guy has to pick the guy before him up. And they did that today.”
The Sánchez hamstring injury certainly is cause for concern; Martinez said he’s definitely headed to the injured list. And a difficult weekend date with the Cubs looms. But Trea Turner is on the verge of returning from his broken finger, the Nationals lineup is close to looking complete again and this team has won four of its last seven.
“Every win in the big leagues is awesome,” Suzuki said. “But to string off a couple wins in a row against a good team like that, hopefully carries onto the next series.”
The afternoon began swimmingly for the Nationals, who had to be licking their chops at the prospect of facing Zack Wheeler again. This lineup has terrorized the Mets right-hander for years and already had scored 11 runs in 9 1/3 innings against him this season before taking the field today. And sure enough, the hits kept on coming right out of the chute today.
Five of the Nationals’ first seven batters recorded base hits, with Anthony Rendon driving in the first run via a single and Parra and Suzuki each delivering two-out RBI doubles to complete the four-run rally.
Martinez remarked Wednesday night how scoring the first run allows a team to relax, and the Nats should have been able to do just that. But then Sánchez grimaced after throwing ball four to Brandon Nimmo with one out in the top of the second. And after a brief conversation with director of athletic training Paul Lessard, the veteran right-hander yelled into his glove and walked gingerly off the field.
“I like to compete,” he said. “I prepare. Between outings, I prepare hard to compete. And I don’t want to leave the game, especially that early.”
The Nationals eventually would announce Sanchez’s injury as “left hamstring soreness,” which explains his measured walk back to the dugout. He’s dealt with hamstring issues each of the last two seasons, and he spent six weeks on the then-disabled list last summer, so he’s familiar with the sensation, though not necessarily this exact type.
“This one was different,” he said. “Some (pickoff) move that I made to first, I twist something on my hamstring, and it didn’t let me stop my body with my landing leg. I couldn’t stop my body to home plate. That’s why I (threw) a few balls after that.”
Sanchez will undergo an MRI to determine the extent of his hamstring strain, but Martinez said the right-hander will go on the injured list no matter what.
The logical candidate to take his spot in the rotation is Fedde, who recently made the conversion to reliever but had previously been stretched out as a starter at Double-A Harrisburg. But the Nationals will sleep on it before making a choice.
“We are going to keep our options open,” Martinez said. “We haven’t decided yet. I mean, Fedde has been pitching well. So we’ll give him a couple days and see where he is at.”
The Nationals hoped Fedde would provide some length today and preserve their early lead, but he provided neither. A four-run top of the third, capped by Michael Conforto’s three-run blast to right, erased the Nats’ 4-0 lead and represented the first runs scored off Fedde in nine big league innings this season.
Fedde would rebound to retire the last five batters he faced, but the pressure was now on the rest of the Nationals bullpen to provide not only innings but quality innings. That beleaguered group delivered in impressive fashion. Dan Jennings, Justin Miller, Kyle Barraclough and Wander Suero each posted a zero.
Doolittle, who closed out a four-run victory Wednesday night, did make things interesting in the ninth when he allowed two runs on three hits and a walk. But the lefty escaped, stranding the bases loaded to notch the save.
“It’s one of those days where he gave up some runs; it’s unusual. But we found a way to win,” Suzuki said. “When Doo’s out there, it doesn’t matter. We feel real confident.”
All of this came after the bottom half of the Nats lineup finally delivered to retake the lead in the middle innings. That beleaguered group went hitless during Wednesday night’s loss. Today, the No. 6 through No. 9 hitters combined for eight hits, four walks and five RBIs.
Parra and Suzuki already had contributed during the first-inning rally. Then they contributed to the key late rallies.
Parra’s two-run homer into the right field bullpen gave the Nationals a 6-4 lead in the fifth and gave the journeyman outfielder/first baseman seven RBIs in his first five games with this franchise. Two innings later, Parra drew a two-out walk and stole second base, putting himself in position to score on Suzuki’s RBI single to right, extending the lead to 7-4.
Turns out they would need that extra run, not to mention the others Parra has contributed in only a few days with his new club.
“I try to do everything to win for my team,” he said. “That’s baseball. I try to do my best to help my team win.”