It’s been an uphill grind since opening day for the Nationals, who perpetually seem to dig themselves into a hole, then attempt to climb their way out of it simply to salvage the situation and keep themselves within striking distance in the standings.
It’s happened countless times already this season, and it happened again this weekend. The Nats took the field this afternoon needing to beat the Diamondbacks just to emerge with a four-game split.
As has so often been the case, they pulled it off, riding a sustained explosion of offense and another strong start by Aníbal Sánchez to a 15-5 rout. They indeed managed a series split against a quality opponent, and that’s nothing to scoff at.
But the Nationals also know they can’t afford to salvage anything over the next week. The time has come for them to seize control of the situation and actually make up real ground, because the Phillies and Braves are coming to town.
“For me, this is a big week,” Davey Martinez said before the game, a rare admission by the manager of the bigger picture instead of the daily task at hand. “We have a chance to make up some ground here.”
Yes, they do. The Nationals (33-38) have won 14 of 21, but they’ve only made up a handful of games in the standings to date. This week they’ll get an opportunity to make up more than that if they can defeat the two teams that have resided atop the National League East all spring and into early summer.
And there’s significant ground to be made up. The Braves blew out the Phillies at SunTrust Park this afternoon, maintaining their 8 1/2-game lead over the Nationals. Philadelphia is now 2 1/2 games behind Atlanta, but still six games better than Washington.
“We’ve got to win those games,” said right fielder Adam Eaton, who reached base five times today. “It’s important. We’re trying to chase at this point. Not to put too much emphasis on it, but we need to play some really competitive baseball. And we shouldn’t beat ourselves these next four games. Play good baseball and not beat ourselves.”
It’ll take a combination of sustained offense and quality pitching for the Nats to enjoy a successful week. The kind of combination they got during today’s rout of the Diamondbacks.
The Nationals scored in six of their eight offensive innings, getting clutch RBI singles early and then towering tack-on blasts late. Just as they did Saturday afternoon, they scored three runs in the bottom of the first, with Howie Kendrick and Kurt Suzuki driving in the runs. Unlike Saturday, when their bats went silent the rest of the way, they kept it up this afternoon.
Matt Adams, moments after breaking his bat on a foul ball down the right field line, grabbed a new piece of wood and launched a three-run homer to right-center, his second in as many days. Oh, yeah, he would also add a grand slam in the bottom of the eighth to complete a seven-RBI afternoon, a new career-high, with his dad Jamie in attendance.
“It means a lot, especially having my dad in the stands,” the big first baseman said. “Three years ago, we made it a thing that no matter where we’re at, he comes out for Father’s Day. So it’s something special to be able to have a game like this, a career-high in RBI and have him in the stands.”
Suzuki delivered a solo homer in the bottom of the fifth, though the more concerning development for the veteran catcher came later when he took a bounced third strike off his neck and had to depart the game with assistance from Martinez and director of athletic training Paul Lessard.
As concerning as the scene was, Martinez said afterward Suzuki appears to be fine.
“I was talking to him (on the field) and he kind of looked a little funny,” the manager said. “I asked him to pick your head up and kind of look up, and when he did that he got really dizzy. So, out of precaution, I wanted to take him out. He saw the doctor, doctor said he was fine. He’s in there now and said he was fine, but kind of scary when he got lightheaded and couldn’t walk back to the dugout.”
Anthony Rendon put a definitive stamp on this game with a two-run homer in the sixth, giving the star slugger (who ranked fifth in All-Star voting among NL third basemen last week) 16 homers and 50 RBIs to go along with a .317 batting average and a 1.071 OPS.
All of this support made life easy on Sánchez, who yet again put together a quality outing and further distanced himself from his wretched start to the season. Sánchez allowed a first-inning homer to Ketel Marte, but then allowed only one more run before departing after the sixth, his pitch count up to 97.
That’s four straight strong starts for Sanchez, who since returning from a hamstring strain is 3-0 with a 1.54 ERA and 0.77 WHIP and is convinced he has moved completely past his early season struggles.
“Definitely, yes,” he said. “I don’t think about what happened before the injury. I think right now I’m feeling like it’s a new season for me.”
Sánchez, like the rest of this team, will now find out if they can keep delivering against the two key division opponents who are about to come to town.
“Having two division rivals coming in, we’ve got to protect our home turf and keep playing the baseball that we’ve been playing,” Adams said.