It’s been a consistent pattern all summer long. The Nationals face an opposing pitcher they’ve rarely - if ever - faced before, need several innings to feel the guy out and then suddenly string together a bunch of hits to knock the previously effective starter out of the game.
They’ve done it to several opponents, some rookies, some veterans who they haven’t seen much before for whatever reason. But they’ve never done it like they did it to Trevor Bauer this afternoon during a 17-7 pasting of the Reds on South Capitol Street.
“I know you think we just go up there, tap the plate and we hit,” Adam Eaton said. “But really there’s a lot more that goes into it. And the older guys having good communication puts us in a better position.”
Only two members of today’s Nationals lineup - Eaton and Kurt Suzuki - had any prior experience against Bauer, beyond a couple of token at-bats. So it wasn’t surprising when the 28-year-old right-hander, an American Leaguer for the vast majority of his career but now a Cincinnati Red as of two weeks ago, cruised through his first four innings. He allowed one run, but that rally featured only one hit, the only hit he surrendered through those first four innings.
But once the Nationals got a couple looks at him today, they turned into a fierce wrecking crew of lumberjacks.
“You see a pitcher more than once - especially if you work the count a little bit, and you can kind of see all his pitches and he throws everything at you - you can kind of see what he has,” Suzuki said. “And by that third time up, you feel a little bit more comfortable in the box against him. That’s the way you want to hit. In a perfect world, that would happen every time.”
How dramatic was today’s turnaround? Well, only two of the Nats’ first 14 batters reached base. Then came the bottom of the fifth, and eight of the nine batters all reached safely before Reds manager David Bell finally emerged from the dugout to remove his embattled starter.
“I gave up hits on all six of my pitch types that inning,” Bauer lamented to reporters afterward. “They got a hit on my changeup, slider, four-seam, two-seam ... I don’t know. It’s kind of confusing when you’re there. I don’t know what else, short of throwing an eephus pitch or changing an arm angle. You’re just trying to guess.”
And they didn’t stop once they got to the Cincinnati bullpen. The Nationals proceeded to score 10 runs in the bottom of the fifth, with all nine batters scoring in the frame (Suzuki twice). Then they scored six more runs in the bottom of the sixth before making an out.
All told, the Nationals went 15-for-18 with three walks, four doubles and three homers during one prolonged stretch across the fifth and sixth innings. They batted around in back-to-back frames. They scored 16 runs in the process.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever done that before,” Eaton said. “It was fun. It’s enjoyable. Not that you expect that.”
The 10-run fifth was the second-biggest offensive outburst in club history, surpassed only by an 11-run top of the seventh at Coors Field on April 27, 2017.
This one carried the Nats to a three-game sweep of the Reds and lifted them to 10 games over the .500 mark for the first time this season.
Everybody contributed. Eaton hit a three-run homer off Bauer, then Anthony Rendon followed with a solo blast (his career-high 26th of the season) seconds later. Suzuki launched a three-run homer off reliever Sal Romano. Asdrúbal Cabrera went 3-for-3 with two doubles and three RBIs during those two innings alone.
“You go one time through the order, first time seeing a guy, and then you kind of get the gist of what he’s trying to do, how his pitches work, what he wants to do with two strikes,” manager Davey Martinez said. “And we did really well with that tonight.”
Even Stephen Strasburg did his part, helping jumpstart the rally with an RBI single on a 3-2 cutter from Bauer, calmly poking a line drive into right field for his sixth hit in his last 14 at-bats.
“I guess you lower your expectations enough, and you just try and grind,” he said with a shrug. “You just try and make it as hard as possible on the pitcher. They are not expecting you to come through, and then when it does it’s like sometimes it happens.”
Strasburg’s pitching performance was less notable. The right-hander was effective for much of his afternoon but still had to work hard to do it, with the Reds driving up his pitch count. And once his teammates enjoyed their 10-run outburst, Strasburg returned to the mound after a long wait for the top of the sixth and promptly gave up three quick runs, capped by Tucker Barnhart’s homer to right.
Two batters later, Martinez walked to the mound to take the ball from a visibly annoyed Strasburg, who departed having thrown 110 pitches in only 5 2/3 innings but received a standing ovation nonetheless from a Nationals Park crowd that just couldn’t find anything to be upset about on a day when the lineup carried the way and then some.
“It’s a good feeling,” Martinez said. “You don’t often score 10 runs in an inning, but it was good. Then all of a sudden the game can’t go fast enough after that.”