If there’s a primary goal for the Nationals during this final stretch of a disappointing season - beyond a miracle rally to reach the playoffs, of course - it’s to leave 2020 with a positive impression of anyone who has a chance to hold a prominent role in 2021.
Someone like Erick Fedde, who hasn’t been able to make the most of his opportunity to stick in a depleted Nats rotation but might have one last chance to make his case in his final two starts of the year.
And what Fedde showed this evening during a 5-0 win over the Marlins in the opener of a twi-night doubleheader in South Florida certainly will leave a pleasing taste in the Nationals’ mouths after a summer of less-than-appealing dishes.
With six scoreless innings of one-hit ball, Fedde put together his best start of the short season and saved the bullpen from getting taxed in the first of two seven-inning games on this evening’s schedule.
“I think today was as close to best-case scenario,” the right-hander said in a postgame Zoom session with reporters. “We only had to run one guy out of the ‘pen, and we’ll have everybody ready for tomorrow. ... Best-case scenario, for sure.”
Pitching efficiently with a fastball that topped out at 96 mph, and taking advantage of home plate umpire Joe West’s generous strike zone below the knees, Fedde allowed only Jesús Aguilar’s fourth-inning single to go along with a couple of walks and one hit batter. The Marlins put only one runner in scoring position, and Fedde barely needed to break a sweat inside the empty, domed ballpark.
“I mean, that’s the kind of pitcher that he is,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “I think we’ve kind of seen how his velo has definitely elevated. It’s more consistent up there. It’s just a matter of him knowing that the two-seamer he’s throwing is very effective. The only talks we had about it today were: Let’s just get early outs. Especially when he keeps the ball down in the zone and keeps getting ahead, he’s going to get early outs, and then he can mix and match later on.”
It was a standout performance that could help Fedde close out this season on a personal high note. After three straight ragged starts against the Phillies and Braves raised his ERA to 5.29, the right-hander bounced back with two runs in five innings against Atlanta last weekend and now added this 91-pitch gem against a Miami club trying to secure a surprising berth in the expanded postseason.
Fedde was aided by an opportunistic Nationals lineup that took an aggressive approach against Sixto Sánchez and was rewarded with five early runs off the Rookie of the Year candidate.
The Nationals were the first club to face Sánchez in the big leagues back on Aug. 22, and tonight they became the first club to face him a second time at this level. That night on South Capitol Street, they were dazzled by the young right-hander’s stuff but managed a couple of homers later on by Gomes and Victor Robles.
Tonight, the change in approach was clear from the outset: The Nationals were going to come out swinging at Sánchez and not wait for him to get to his devastating arsenal of off-speed pitches deep in counts.
“I think we watch TV enough and see that you don’t want to deep in the count against that guy, because he’s a tremendous young guy,” Gomes said. “We were just trying to get something early in the count and do the damage that we can.”
These weren’t wild swings, though. The Nats were just looking to get a pitch over the plate and put bat on ball. And they were quite effective putting that strategy into practice.
The production didn’t come from the usual names at the top of the lineup. No, while Trea Turner and Juan Soto went hitless in six plate appearances versus Sánchez, it was the bottom half of Davey Martinez’s batting order that did the damage.
Gomes, Luis García, Carter Kieboom, Andrew Stevenson and Robles combined to go 7-for-9 with a walk and five RBIs against the Marlins rookie. Most of the hits came early in the count, several on the first pitch, several on well-placed line drives or grounders to the opposite field.
Four straight hits in the top of the second produced the evening’s first two runs, Garcia and Kieboom driving them in. Then five straight batters reached in the top of the fourth to bring three more runs home, the big blows a two-run single by Stevenson with the bases loaded and a subsequent RBI single by Robles.
So it was that Sánchez, who entered with a 1.69 ERA in five career starts, was knocked out after allowing five runs in four innings, done in by a Nationals lineup that perhaps learned a thing or two the first time it saw this impressive rookie and made it pay off in the rematch.
And that made a winner out of Fedde, who after a summer of more disappointing moments than encouraging ones could smile about his complete performance tonight.
“It was just one of those days where you have four pitches,” he said. “You love those days.”