Nats avoid no-hitter, but can’t touch Alcantara in loss (updated)

The Nationals played the 2,632nd regular season game in their history this evening, which means they’ve now existed as long as Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games streak lasted from 1982-98. That’s nearly 17 seasons of the third incarnation of Major League Baseball in D.C.

And though there have been no shortage of dizzying highs and terrifying lows along the way, the Nationals have always been able to stake claim to this irrefutable fact: In all that time, they’ve never been no-hit.

There have been a handful of moderately close calls, one really close one, but it has yet to happen. And though the crowd of 19,759 assembled on South Capitol Street this evening might have feared for a brief while they were going to see an end to the streak, they walked away content to at least have avoided that ignominy despite suffering a 3-0 loss to the Marlins.

Miami right-hander Sandy Alcantara gave it his best shot, utterly dominating the Nationals all night, carrying a perfect game into the sixth and a no-hitter into the seventh. But with seven outs to go, Josh Bell tagged a 92 mph slider 352 feet to right field. It caromed off the wall, and though Bell had to hold up at first base with an extremely loud single, nobody around here was complaining about that. Well, not much.

Thomas-Running-Catch-White-Sidebar.jpg“I was hoping it would go over the fence,” manager Davey Martinez said with a laugh in his postgame Zoom session with reporters.

“I felt relieved just being at first,” Bell said.

The Nats lost the game. They were blown away by Alcantara, who was pulled after eight brilliant innings, striking out seven, walking none and throwing 96 pitches.

They finished with only two hits, with Ryan Zimmerman adding a single off reliever Dylan Floro in the ninth. They were shut out for the first time since June 11. But they were not, and still have not, been no-hit.

Alcantara didn’t come as close to history as Michael Wacha did on Sept. 24, 2013, when the then-Cardinals rookie was one out away before Zimmerman legged out a chopper over the mound for a hard-earned, infield single. But he was every bit as dominant, throwing a fastball that averaged 99 mph and topped out at 100 mph, not to mention a slider, sinker and changeup that all averaged at least 91 mph as well.

“This is the hardest I’ve seen him throw: 99-100 (mph), slider 93-94 (mph),” Martinez said. “And he was hitting his spots. He was really good. Our guys were battling. We were putting balls in play. But he was just that good.”

The 26-year-old was on point from the get-go, opening his evening with a quick strikeout of Lane Thomas on a 99 mph fastball. He never looked back, retiring every Nationals batter the first time through the order with relative ease on only 30 pitches.

The Nats did suffer a bad break in the fourth when Juan Soto smoked a ball back up the box at a blistering 111.5 mph. Alcantara had no time to react, and before he knew it the ball ricocheted off his left leg, directly to first baseman Lewin Díaz, who stepped on the bag for the easy out.

“It was nuts,” said Bell, who was watching from the on-deck circle. “I feel like that’s just been some of the tough luck we’ve dealt with. ... For Soto to hit the ball as hard as he did, and as square as he did, and for it to end up right at the first baseman, it’s definitely insane. But it’s part of the game. We play so often that weird things happen from time to time.”

What looked like a sure single off the bat instead was Alcantara’s 12th consecutive out recorded, albeit one that was far more painful than any of the previous 11. So painful it wasn’t immediately clear if he’d be able to continue.

Upon returning to the dugout, Marlins manager Don Mattingly put his arm around his young starter, who had a look of disappointment during the conversation before ducking down the tunnel. But when the bottom of the fifth arrived, Alcantara returned to the mound, accompanied by Mattingly, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. and a trainer who wanted to watch him throw some warm-up tosses before giving him the green light to continue.

Once it was clear he was good to go, Alcantara went right back to work. He retired the side in the fifth, striking out Bell on a 3-2 fastball that was out of the zone but too tempting to ignore at 99 mph. He got Yadiel Hernandez to ground out to first and Carter Kieboom to ground out to third, and so he carried his perfect game into the sixth.

“Obviously, after the fourth or fifth inning, everyone knows,” Bell said. “You’re just trying to capitalize on mistakes. I felt like he did a good job of keeping people off the barrel, aside from Soto up to that point.”

The Nationals would finally get their first baserunner in the sixth when Keibert Ruiz led off the inning with a sharp grounder to second. Jazz Chisholm Jr. couldn’t handle the hot shot cleanly, then slipped on the grass and fell, unable to throw Ruiz out in time. It was a fairly easy call for the official scorer: error on Chisholm, keeping the no-hitter intact.

All the while, Paolo Espino was doing his part to keep the game as close as could be, to little fanfare. The 34-year-old labored in the top of the first, allowing a run on Chisholm’s single, Bryan De La Cruz’s walk and Jesús Sánchez’s RBI base hit to right. But he settled in after that and kept the Marlins from adding to their lead. (Patrick Murphy would allow two insurance runs in the top of the ninth.)

Espino had to pitch out of a couple of jams along the way, but he walked off the mound at the end of the sixth having allowed just the one run on 91 pitches, one of his best starts of the season.

“I think the first inning, I think I was thinking too much,” the right-hander said. “I was throwing too much around the plate. From that second inning on, I think Keibert and I were pretty much synced a little quicker. We had a lot better pace throughout the game after that first inning.”

If only his opponent wasn’t turning it into a complete afterthought with a masterpiece of his own.

“I knew he was doing a good job,” Espino said. “I knew he was getting outs quick because I had to go back and run out there (to the mound) real quick.”

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