Much as he probably wishes he could give a couple of his struggling starters the season’s final two weeks off, the cold, hard truth is that Davey Martinez has no choice but to keep giving them the ball every five days.
The Nationals’ schedule to close out this agonizing season - 15 games in 13 days, including an upcoming stretch of eight games in five days - simply won’t allow for anyone to shut it down early, not unless there’s an injury involved. And even if there was, the Nats would be left scrambling to find any warm arm to take over that outing, because they’ve exhausted their pool of reasonable pitching candidates for 2020.
Nope, the guys they’ve been going with are going to have to be the guys they finish with. And that may very well mean more nights like this, when a struggling starter with little hope of turning his season around slogs his way through 4 1/3 innings, digs his team into an insurmountable hole and then watches the rest of the proceedings from the clubhouse.
Aníbal Sánchez was tonight’s victim during a 6-1 loss to the Rays that proved to be a fairly non-competitive ballgame between the American League East leaders and the surprise National League East cellar-dwellers.
“He threw a lot of pitches,” Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “Balls that got hit hard, they were just right over the middle of the plate. But the pitch count - once again the pitch count kind of got us. He was up at almost 100 pitches in 4 1/3 innings. That’s a lot.”
In the latest dud of a start during a two-month season full of them, Sánchez found himself perpetually trying to pitch his way out of jams, beaten via a combination of singles, stolen bases and balks. And all of that led to yet another elevated pitch count and yet another early exit.
This was the 18th time the Nationals’ starter failed to complete five innings in 46 games this season, a staggering rate of 39.1 percent. For comparison’s sake, last year it happened only 27 times in 162 games, a rate of 16.7 percent.
Sánchez hasn’t been the biggest culprit - this was the third time he hasn’t lasted five innings in nine starts - but his struggles certainly have played a significant role in the Nats’ wayward season. Glowingly touted by Martinez last year as worthy of standing alongside his higher-paid rotation mates as part of a “Big Four” as good as any in the majors, the veteran right-hander hasn’t earned the billing this season.
In nine starts, Sánchez is now 2-5 with a 7.17 ERA and 1.758 WHIP. The Nationals still need two more starts out of him this year.
“Get deeper in the game,” Sánchez said when asked what, if anything, he’d like to do in those final outings to close this season on a more positive note. “Pitch and show I can still have success in games on the mound. ... I would love to pitch better, get better results for myself and for the team and finish the way I want.”
Facing the Rays again one week after holding them scoreless for five innings before faltering in the sixth, Sánchez seemed to go with a different game plan in the rematch. A master of five or even six pitches some nights, he went almost exclusively with fastballs early on tonight and did get through the first inning unscathed.
But then Sánchez tried to sneak a first-pitch curveball past Nate Lowe in the bottom of the second and watched it soar to right for a solo homer.
“I feel really good with my fastball right now,” he said. “Last outing was against them, too, and I started feeling good with my fastball, my location. Today I just tried to move the ball up and down. I think everything (bad) happened with the (off-speed) pitches. So why not use my fastball? I feel good with that.”
Sánchez’s struggles tonight weren’t confined to his actual pitches, though. Later in the second, he gave up another run via two singles sandwiched around the first of two balks called on him tonight. Each time, the right-hander was flagged for failing to come to a full set before delivering a pitch, though the second balk was called off because he simultaneously threw ball four to the batter, the walk taking precedence.
Regardless, the balks were frustrating. So were the four bases the Rays stole off Sánchez, three of them not even drawing a throw. It continued another disturbing trend: Opponents are now 10-for-10 stealing bases off the Sánchez-Kurt Suzuki battery this season, 36-for-42 against the Nats as a team.
“I think he’s so focused on getting outs at home plate, his times are just not good,” Martinez said of Sánchez. “When a team like this, who we know coming in - you’ve got to be able to hold runners on. ‘Cause they’re just going to run. He didn’t do that tonight.”
Martinez finally pulled the plug on Sánchez after he surrendered a bases-loaded single in the fifth. Rookie Ben Braymer entered and allowed all three inherited runners to score, leaving Sánchez charged with all six in only 4 1/3 innings.
And with the Nationals lineup lifeless against Tampa Bay’s opener John Curtiss and starter-turned-reliever Ryan Yarbrough, the outcome of this game was never really in doubt. They did load the bases in the ninth, but rookies Luis García and Yadiel Hernández each struck out to leave them stranded, adding one final moment of disappointment to this evening.
“You want to see how they react to big moments, big situations like that,” Martinez said. “If they can relax and put good at-bats in those situations, you get something special.”