Nats win 10-inning pitchers’ duel to snap skid (updated)

Whether played in Washington, Toronto, Buffalo or Sheboygan, tonight’s game between the Nationals and Blue Jays deserved to be played in front of a packed house. It was that good.

Alas, you can’t play a ballgame in front of anyone right now, so the select few who were allowed inside Nationals Park to witness this taut pitchers’ duel that ended as a 4-0, 10-inning victory for the Nats could only appreciate it for everyone else watching at home.

Playing under Major League Baseball’s funky new extra-inning rule that automatically places a runner on second base to begin each half-inning, the Nationals finally got the clutch hits they’ve been seeking for a week: Adam Eaton’s infield single to bring home the night’s first run, then Asdrúbal Cabrera’s bases-loaded triple to complete a four-run rally.

“We needed this win,” said Max Scherzer, whose team had lost three in a row to open the season 1-4. “We needed to start getting some mojo going.”

Those four runs in the top of the 10th proved to be the only runs scored during a tense, entertaining ballgame featuring all kinds of outstanding pitching and defense.

One of the best in the game, Scherzer, squared off with one of the sport’s most touted young arms, Nate Pearson, and put up nothing but zeros. Pearson, making his major league debut, was pulled after five splendid innings. Scherzer made it all the way to the eighth.

“We were just in a nothing-nothing ballgame trying to execute every pitch,” Scherzer said. “Everything’s on the line with every single pitch. There was no room for any errors.”

Neither team could convert what few scoring opportunities it had, though stellar defense on both sides helped make that possible.

The Nationals, serving as the road team in their own ballpark, averted sure disaster in the bottom of the eighth.

Scherzer, attempting to complete eight full innings in his second start of the season, got himself into a jam via a single, a stolen base, a pickoff attempt gone awry and a walk. His pitch count at a whopping 112, the ace handed the ball to Davey Martinez, who in turn handed it to Daniel Hudson and asked his fireman to put out a three-alarmer.

And Hudson did it, with a huge assist from Trea Turner, who while playing halfway in at shortstop made a terrific reaction play to snag Teoscar Hernández’s hot smash to his left, flipped to Starlin Castro for the second out and then watched as Castro completed the inning-ending 6-4-3 double play.

“Basically threw it down the middle, and Trea made a great play,” Hudson said. “He hit it really hard. But it goes down as a 6-4-3, and I’ll take it and get out of the inning.”

The Nationals dugout rejoiced. The Blue Jays dugout groaned. And a scoreless game proceeded to the ninth

It then proceeded to the 10th, at which point both sides got their first taste of Weird Extra-Inning Baseball. Castro, the last out of the ninth, was the designated automatic runner at second, but Martinez decided to have Emilio Bonifácio pinch-run for him. After Carter Kieboom and Andrew Stevenson each worked full-count walks off Toronto reliever Shun Yamaguchi, the bases were loaded with nobody out.

“I didn’t want to bunt,” Martinez said of his strategy in that situation for the first time. “We’re playing on the road. I wanted these guys to swing the bat. But they worked two great at-bats to get on base. That’s a testament to just teamwork, and getting on for the next guy.”

If you’ve watched the Nationals through the season’s first week, though, you know even a bases-loaded, no-out rally is no guarantee of a run crossing the plate. And sure enough, when both Victor Robles and Turner struck out, the worst-case scenario appeared to be playing out.

Stevenson-Safe-at-2B-Blue-Jays-Sidebar.jpgNever fear, because Eaton’s sharp grounder skipped off the mound and toward second baseman Cavan Biggio, who tried to dive toward the bag and beat Stevenson’s slide. The two arrived simultaneously, and then Stevenson’s foot came off the base for a split second, but Biggio couldn’t re-apply the tag in time. After a tense review, the original safe call stood and the Nats finally had a run.

“I knew if something’s hit, I gotta try to get there,” Stevenson said. “And fortunately was able to beat it.”

One run then became four runs, because moments later Cabrera ripped a hard chopper past Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at first base and all the way into the right field corner for a three-run triple to complete the four-run rally.

And so a Nationals lineup that had been 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position tonight up to that point and 1-for-15 with two outs and runners in scoring position for the season, suddenly had back-to-back clutch hits to ensure a victory.

“We’re swinging the bats. We’re going to get our hits,” Martinez said. “And I tell those guys: ‘You can’t control where the ball goes. Just keep putting the ball in play.’”

The Bizarro World nature of this game was evident the moment you walked into Nationals Park and looked up at the scoreboard, which featured a gigantic Blue Jays logo. Though they still used the visitors’ clubhouse and dugout, the Jays wore their home white uniforms while the Nats wore their navy blue jerseys and road gray pants for the first time in 2020.

Public address announcer Jerome Hruska read the starting lineup for “the visiting Washington Nationals” in a monotone voice, with no piped-in crowd reactions, then boomed out the starting nine for “your Toronto Blue Jays!” as the as the fake fans cheered. They even played the delightfully cheesy “OK! Blue Jays!” song during the seventh-inning stretch.

It was a weird extra layer to an already weird scene, but there was nothing weird about the pitchers’ duel that played out on the field as a 23-year-old making his big league debut matched a 36-year-old future Hall of Famer every step of the way.

The Nationals weren’t surprised by Pearson; he came into this start as highly touted as any pitching prospect around, with a fastball that approaches triple digits and a sharp-breaking slider to go along with it. And he more than lived up to his reputation.

Topping out at 99 mph, the rookie right-hander didn’t looked fazed at all against a Nats lineup that, while missing Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick (upper back stiffness), still featured several proven major league hitters. He gave up only two hits (Turner’s infield single in the third, Eric Thames’ leadoff double in the fourth), walked two and struck out five during five outstanding innings of work.

“Toronto’s got a good one there,” Martinez said. “He’s got a good, live fastball. Threw some really good breaking balls. He’s going to be really good.”

Under different circumstances, Pearson would’ve been able to continue. But with a pitch count of 75 and no chance to have built his arm up the way he would during a normal spring training, the Blue Jays didn’t take any chances and turned to their bullpen for the sixth.

Martinez had the luxury of a big-time ace on the mound for his side, so there was no need to think about pulling Scherzer early. The veteran righty had thrown 99 pitches in 5 1/3 innings on opening night, so he was good to at least match those numbers tonight. And in fact he exceeded them.

Scherzer had no first-inning troubles this time around, getting past a leadoff walk by inducing a 3-6-3 double play and then striking out Lourdes Gurriel Jr. He allowed an infield single made possible by the Nationals’ defensive shift in the second, then gave up a double and a walk in the third.

The Blue Jays did nothing else against Scherzer until very late in the game. He retired 13 in a row and completed the seventh inning at 98 pitches, successfully lobbying his manager to let him re-take the mound for what would be a pivotal bottom of the eighth.

He wound up throwing 112 pitches, not an unimpressive total for the second start of a short season following a quick ramp-up.

“I fully intended to do that no matter when that was going to happen,” Scherzer said. “During the shutdown, I made sure I was training just as hard, because I knew as soon as we got back going, I had to be ready to go.”

blog comments powered by Disqus