After an unseasonably cool spring on the East Coast that more often than not left their bats ice-cold, the Nationals might well have stepped onto the tarmac at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix late Thursday night, breathed in the scorching hot, dry desert air and wondered if they could just head straight to Chase Field to begin their series against the Diamondbacks early.
Nothing fixes an unproductive lineup like temperatures in the upper 90s and a relative humidity of 10 percent. And with the roof open tonight in Arizona, the Nats took full advantage of the favorable conditions and enjoyed their best offensive showing of the season to make life exceptionally easy on Max Scherzer and company.
With a six-run outburst in the top of the first, the Nationals jumped out to a comfortable early lead, kept tacking on more and cruised to a 17-2 victory over the D-backs to get their road trip off to about as uplifting a note as possible.
“I can’t say we’ll be putting up 17 runs every game, but it’s one of those games that shows top-to-bottom what kind of lineup we have,” catcher Yan Gomes, who churned out five of his team’s season-high 22 hits, said on Zoom afterward. “Getting out there and scoring early, especially for a guy like Max, is huge. It’s one of the things we always try to do. Getting it done today was definitely a good sign.”
And they did it in rare fashion, at least by their standards: with power.
A Nationals club that was averaging a paltry 2.4 extra-base hits per game somehow managed to pile up four of them in the first inning alone, seven by the end of the third and 10 in total. They entered the day slugging .381 as a team. Then they slugged .765 in this game.
“The guys had good at-bats today,” manager Davey Martinez said. “The key was, we stayed on the ball. We hit the ball all over the field today, which is nice.”
Contributions came both from the usual suspects and from some unexpected ones as well.
Trea Turner led off the game with a homer, his ninth of the year, and added a two-run double later. Kyle Schwarber continued his recent surge with a second-inning opposite-field homer, two singles, two walks and a hit by pitch. Josh Bell also picked up where he left off Thursday in D.C., ripping a bases-loaded double in the first and later adding a single and a walk. Victor Robles tripled his RBI output for the season with run-scoring doubles in each of his first two at-bats, then reached base again when he was hit by a pitch on the back of his left leg, just above the knee, before he was pulled from the game for precautionary reasons. Andrew Stevenson launched a three-run homer off position player David Peralta in the top of the ninth to cap everything off.
But the biggest offensive contribution of the night came from perhaps the least heralded member of the regular lineup: Gomes. The veteran catcher deserves more attention than he gets, certainly for the way he’s been delivering both at and behind the plate this season. And he was impossible to ignore tonight during a 5-for-6 performance that included everything but a home run.
Gomes doubled in two runs in the first, tripled off the high wall in center field in the third, singled to right in the fifth and three times got a chance to bat needing only a homer to become the 16th catcher in major league history to hit for the cycle.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really had a shot at that,” he said with a laugh.
Alas, Gomes had to settle for another single in the sixth before striking out looking in the seventh and singling again in the ninth off Peralta. No matter, he still ended the night sporting a .288 batting average, .500 slugging percentage and .821 OPS that trails only Turner and Ryan Zimmerman on the roster.
“We knew that about him,” Martinez said of Gomes’ offensive abilities. “He works hard, man, to do that. The key with him is to get ready early and use the whole field and not get so pull-happy. He’s had some great at-bats this year.”
Gomes also had the pleasure of catching Scherzer for only the second time this season, and once again guided the 36-year-old ace through a dominant performance.
With the freedom to go right at Arizona’s hitters thanks to the 6-0 lead his teammates handed him before he ever set foot on the mound, Scherzer was all business. He retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced, the lone D-back to reach Peralta via a second-inning walk.
“You can’t fall in the trap, because a lot of times they’re trying to go get you a little bit quicker,” the righty said of pitching with a big lead from the outset. “You can give up a couple runs pretty cheap, pretty quick, cause you kind of let your guard down. So you’ve got to be really focused, go out there and really attack them in that situation. But it does afford you some chances to be more aggressive and throw some other pitches that you might not throw. Because you know if they did hit a homer, you’re not going to lose the ballgame because of it.”
Peralta and Josh Rojas would both single in the fourth to spoil any thought of a no-hit bid, but that probably made life easier for Martinez, who wasn’t worried about pulling his ace after five easy innings and 85 pitches.
Scherzer is now 3-2 with a 2.10 ERA on the season, but over his last six starts he’s got a 1.60 ERA, 0.763 WHIP, 48 strikeouts and only seven walks, further cementing his status as an early season Cy Young contender again.
Under normal circumstances, he might’ve been happy to expound on his recent surge. But with a sore throat that left his voice hoarse all night, Scherzer preferred to keep things simple.
“I always knew you use your teeth to throw fastballs,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much you use your throat.”