ST. LOUIS - Day games following night games - especially day games with a 12:15 p.m. local time first pitch - are prime opportunities for veterans to get some rest and reserves to get some playing time. The Nationals, though, have reached crunch time of a season that appears likely to go right down to the wire. And so when it came time to fill out the lineup card for today’s matinee with the Cardinals, Davey Martinez and Chip Hale decided it was appropriate to keep things exactly as they were in Tuesday night’s win.
That means Howie Kendrick and Yan Gomes are both starting, something that would not have been done earlier in the season. Kendrick, the 36-year-old infielder who has dealt with multiple leg injuries during the course of the season, is starting at first base and batting fifth. And Gomes, the 32-year-old catcher who has been behind the plate all but one day since Kurt Suzuki injured his elbow, is starting for the 11th time in 12 games this afternoon.
“Obviously, we’re going to push it to where we can,” said Hale, who is managing his third straight game while Martinez recovers from a minor cardiac procedure in Washington. “But guys are successful when used correctly. So you have to be careful.”
The decision to start Kendrick and Gomes was made only with the blessing of both players, who insisted they were good to go. The fact the team has a day off Thursday before opening a weekend series in Miami helps.
“There’s no way he could go today without the off-day,” Hale said of Gomes, though the same applied to Kendrick.
Hale said he talked to Gomes at the start of the week and mapped out this scenario. He said the catcher “was adamant that he wanted to play all three” games of this critical series between National League playoff contenders.
Gomes, who has suffered through a difficult year at the plate, has stepped up down the stretch in spite of the extra playing time. Over his last 17 games, he’s batting .279 with four homers, 12 RBIs and a .917 OPS.
The Nationals hope they don’t need to continue to ride Gomes all the way through the finish line, that Suzuki will be ready to rejoin him at some point. Suzuki, out since Sept. 7 with right elbow inflammation, hit in the cage again this morning but has not yet been cleared to throw. He said Tuesday he hoped to begin doing that within a couple days.
Suzuki was joined in the cage today by Matt Adams, who took light swings for the first time since spraining his left shoulder Sept. 12.
Meanwhile, the Nationals have readjusted their rotation schedule for the weekend series. After Aníbal Sánchez starts Friday, Stephen Strasburg will pitch Saturday on normal rest, with Austin Voth pushed to Sunday’s game.
That allows the team to break up Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Max Scherzer and also leaves them with more options for the final days of the season. Assuming Strasburg’s subsequent start comes Sept. 26 against the Phillies, he would be available for a potential wild card game on Oct. 1. That would be helpful if Scherzer is needed to start the Sept. 29 regular season finale against the Indians, or a potential tiebreaking Game 163.
Update: The good news: Scherzer is in peak form today. He is pumping fastballs in the 95-97 mph range. He has seven strikeouts through four innings. He has retired 12 of 13 batters faced. The bad news: The only guy he didn’t retire is the reason the Nationals trail 1-0 after four. Tommy Edman, the rookie No. 8 hitter and jack of all trades, went down and mashed a 1-2 cutter from Scherzer into the right field bullpen for a solo homer in the third. And that’s the lone run scored so far today. The Nats have had some chances against Adam Wainwright, most notably with two on and two out in the second. Scherzer singled to right, and Bob Henley waved Victor Robles around third. But Edman, who was playing basically a deep second base from his position in right field, easily threw out Robles at the plate. It was a particularly egregious send from Henley, one that seemed to have little to no chance of being successful.
Update II: How would you explain to someone what “The Cardinal Way” is? Play them a tape of the bottom of the fifth. They got a leadoff double from Matt Carpenter, and then Mike Schildt started managing like it’s 1985. He had Yadier Molina bunt Carpenter over to third. Then he sent in Harrison Bader to pinch-run for Carpenter. Then he saw Paul DeJong hit a little nubber to the right of the mound, slow enough to score Bader without a throw. It’s hard to manufacture a run any more than that. The Nationals trail 2-0 after five and need to get something going against Wainwright.
Update III: I’m not sure I could’ve pre-written a more ludicrous story about this game than what has actually transpired. It’s been a Nats-Cardinals Greatest Hits Show, with gaffes, opposite-field singles by little-known scrappy utility men, killer home runs by former teammates. The bottom of the seventh stole the show. Scherzer was about to get out of it with two runs across the plate, 11 strikeouts and zero walks. But then Juan Soto lost a ball in the sun, and the floodgates opened. Edman (of course) sent a two-out, opposite-field RBI single to left to make it 3-1 St. Louis. Matt Wieters - yes, Matt Wieters - then drove a hanging curveball from his old batterymate to right for a killer, two-run homer that made it 5-1 after seven.