Sánchez loses pitchers’ duel, Nats lose again on road (updated)

MINNEAPOLIS - It doesn’t matter how well the Nationals’ starters pitch right now. If their teammates can’t score any runs off opposing starters, it’ll all be wasted.

Which, alas, is exactly what’s happening these days.

Sanchez-Delivers-at-MIN-Gray-Sidebar.jpgThe Nationals got another gem from Aníbal Sánchez tonight. The veteran right-hander had the Twins’ potent lineup eating out of the palm of his hand. But with his teammates unable to touch José Berríos, Sánchez had zero margin for error. And so the one big blast he surrendered late proved too much for the Nats to overcome.

“One of the two teams has to win,” Sánchez said. “One of the pitchers has to make a mistake. I did, and I paid for it.”

Yes, he did. Mitch Garver’s two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh ended Sánchez’s shutout bid and left the Nationals staring at a late deficit. And when Tanner Rainey gave up three more runs in the bottom of the eighth, this 5-0 loss to the Twins was written in stone.

Thus did a Nats lineup that had been smoking hot for much of the summer continue its September swoon, especially early in games. A team that has scored the most runs in the National League since the All-Star break has now managed to score only 10 runs off opposing starters in its last eight contests.

The Nationals have scored 23 runs off opposing relievers during that same span, including the seven that were necessary to pull off a record-breaking comeback over the Mets last week. But they can’t keep relying on last-ditch rallies. They have to start taking earlier leads.

And they perhaps have to start taking a different approach at the plate when it’s clear the pitcher they’re facing is in a groove like Berríos was in this game.

“I truly believe when you are facing a guy like tonight - he commanded the strike zone, changeup was good, slider was good - you have to stay in the middle of the field,” manager Davey Martinez said.

The Nationals didn’t do that. They hit only two balls to center field in the entire game, each of them caught by LaMonte Wade Jr.

Of course, they not only need to take advantage of strong outings by their own starters. They need - even when trailing late - to get quality work from their relievers to at least give their lineup a chance to mount a comeback.

That most certainly did not happen tonight. After Sánchez was pulled with the Nationals trailing 2-0, Martinez entrusted the eighth inning to Rainey. He could have used other relievers he trusts when his team is tied or ahead: Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland, Wander Suero, even Sean Doolittle. He instead entrusted it to Rainey, who quickly turned a 2-0 deficit into a 5-0 deficit via two hits, two walks, a hit batter and a wild pitch.

“It’s as big as any other inning,” Rainey said. “You give your team a chance to score two runs in the ninth to tie it up, as opposed to five. It’s a big difference. Two runs is one swing of the bat.”

All of that combined to account for the Nationals’ fifth loss in six games as they attempt to hold onto the top position in the National League wild card standings. They’re still in that position, but their lead over the Brewers (who did shockingly lose reigning MVP Christian Yelich for the rest of the season after he fouled a ball off his kneecap and fractured it) for a spot in the Oct. 1 winner-take-all game is down to 3 1/2.

The Twins entered this game having launched a major league best 275 home runs and a major league best 5.83 runs per contest. The Nationals entered this game having scored a National League best 325 runs since the All-Star break.

What happened next? One of the best pitchers’ duels of the season, of course.

Both starters were in complete control from the outset, but Berríos slightly outlasted Sánchez before suffering his first blemish of the game. The Minnesota righty retired the first 13 batters he faced. There were a couple of hard-hit balls, most notably Howie Kendrick’s drive to the warning track in left, but nothing that ended in a positive result for the Nationals.

No problem, because Sánchez was every bit as effective. And slightly more efficient. Though he issued a two-out walk to Jonathan Schoop in the bottom of the third to create the first baserunner of the night for either team, he carried his no-hit bid deep into the fifth, with only a Willians Astudillo blooper into no man’s land in right-center field breaking that up.

Each team would get one runner into scoring position in the middle innings. Neither would advance him beyond second base.

“He was just keeping everybody off-balance,” said Yan Gomes, who with Kurt Suzuki nursing a bad elbow caught Sánchez for the first time this season. “Whatever pitch he needed to throw in any count, he was pulling out his whole arsenal. That was fun. That was fun to catch him today. It was our first time doing it, and it was fun to see how he plays around with guys a litte.”

And yet, someone was going to have to give in eventually. That someone was Sánchez, who finally hit a wall in the seventh.

Eddie Rosario led off with a double to right-center. Garver then belted a hanging slider to left for his 30th homer of the season.

It’s all Sánchez would surrender. But on this night, that’s all the Twins needed. And so the veteran right-hander was left to contemplate if he could walk away pleased with all the good things he did in this game or demoralized about the one pitch that changed the outcome of the game.

“In that situation, it’s really hard to think about how good I can throw the first six innings,” Sánchez said. “Or even, I finished the seventh inning strong. But one pitch and everything ... it’s like, that’s really hard to respond to that question.”

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