A flurry of singles and well-struck balls should have portended a good night at the plate for the Nationals. It didn’t.
Ten singles and a double by the home team only produced one run, and that wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the four solo homers the Blue Jays launched off Aníbal Sánchez during a 4-1 victory at Nationals Park that only served to add to the defending champs’ frustration during the opening stretch of this unusual season.
The four blasts off Sánchez - two by Teoscar Hernández, one apiece by Rowdy Tellez and Danny Jansen - proved the difference during a game that saw the Nats outhit and at times outpitch their interleague counterparts but fail to win the game.
As such, the Nationals are now 1-3 to begin this season, the three losses all winnable games. Not that it matters in the standings, especially in a 60-game season.
“I mean they’re going out there, they’re competing. We’ve just got to clean it up a little bit,” manager Davey Martinez said. “But that’s part of getting out there and playing. I know we played some exhibition games, we mimicked a lot of games with the intrasquad games. But it’s not the same, you know? Now they’ve just got to continue playing and playing and playing, and get going again, and you’ll see the whole baseball game better.”
On a 94-degree early Monday evening - starting times for most weeknight games during this fan-less season have been bumped up to 6:05 p.m. - the ball was either flying out of Nationals Park or getting lost in the low sun above the third base stands. Both issues spelled trouble for Sánchez.
Hernández, moved to the leadoff spot when Bo Bichette was a late scratch with a tight hamstring, sent Sánchez’s second pitch of the game deep to right-center and watched it carry over the fence for a quick 1-0 lead.
It would be the first of six hits in five innings off Sánchez, and remarkably all of them went for extra bases, including a Derek Fisher triple made possible when right fielder Adam Eaton lost track of his fly ball in the aforementioned sun.
“Almost a no-hitter!” Sánchez cracked when it was pointed out he didn’t allow any singles.
Sánchez escaped the second-inning jam, and he never faced another one the rest of the night. The Blue Jays didn’t put a man on base in the third, fourth or fifth inning. Yet they still scored three more runs, all via solo homers.
Tellez belted a first-pitch changeup into the second deck to lead off the fourth. Three batters later, Jansen sent a curveball deep to left. And then Hernández led off the fifth with his second homer of the night, another solo blast to right, remarkably his fourth in nine career at-bats vs. Sánchez.
“We’ve got a long history,” the veteran right-hander said. “This guy, I think, hit pretty good against me. I think I missed a couple pitches against him. When you miss pitches against the wrong guy, that’s what happens.”
Four solo homers were enough to offset the positives from Sánchez’s start (seven strikeouts, one walk). It all made for a strange - maybe even fluky - pitching line.
“I think it’s part of the game,” he said. “Sometimes that can happen. Sometimes you can have a really good outing. But like I said, I think I missed the pitch against those guys. They’re fresh, they’re young, they’re strong. It’s like a new baseball era. ... As soon as I missed one pitch, I paid for it.”
And because his teammates were the victims of a combination of bad luck, bad baserunning and bad situational hitting, the veteran starter was left to take the loss.
In some respects, the Nationals had good at-bats against Blue Jays starter Trent Thornton, who surrendered eight hits and two walks in only four innings. But they didn’t have good at-bats with runners on base (Howie Kendrick’s strikeout in the first, Michael A. Taylor’s strikeout in the second, Starlin Castro’s weak flyout in the seventh). And when they did, they suffered the worst kind of baseball luck.
Three times tonight a Nationals player scorched a ball off the bat yet watched the Blue Jays turn it into a double play, twice on line drives. They hit into another, more conventional, double play in the eighth.
Even the Nationals’ lone run didn’t come easy. Eric Thames led off the fourth with a single, then took off when Kurt Suzuki laced a double down the left field line. Thames - who while on second base misread Victor Robles’ 380-foot drive off the wall and failed to score two innings earlier - chugged 270 feet around the bases and just barely slid in safely past Jansen’s tag.
Martinez was critical of two baserunning plays: Thames trying to tag up in the second and Robles not freezing on a line drive in the fourth, leading to one of the double plays.
“I mean, you’re not going nowhere there,” the manager said of the Robles play. “Robles is one of those kids where he’s overly aggressive all the time when he’s on the bases. But he’s got to know the situation. And Thames, he went to go back to the base. You don’t go back to the base there, you go halfway. ... He’s got to understand that being on second base, you’re in scoring position anyway. Just go halfway with one out and see what happens.”
Those sequences underscored just how difficult it was for the Nationals to score tonight. They did plenty of things well at the plate. They just didn’t do them at the right moments to win the game.
“We had, what, 11 hits and one run?” Suzuki sighed. “We felt we had our opportunities to score runs. ... It was one of those nights, man. You can’t explain it. You put so many guys, a lot of traffic on the bases, and can only muster up one run.”