And you may be surprised to know he has had a healthy amount of support for a couple of months now, even after the Nats’ late July sell-off. They entered tonight’s game in Cincinnati having scored 181 runs since Aug. 15, most in the National League. And then they added seven more to the total, getting a three-run rally in the top of the ninth to storm back to tie the game
Alas, there’s also a sad truth to all this that must be accepted: It’s all for naught if the Nationals pitching staff can’t keep opponents from crossing the plate too much. And this season, that’s been a far bigger problem than anything else.
Entering tonight, that pitching staff had given up 200 runs since Aug. 15, second-most in the NL. Is it any wonder the team went 14-22 during that span?
Make it 14-23 now following tonight’s 8-7 11-inning loss to the Reds, in which Paolo Espino and five relievers combined to squander a 4-0 lead and give up seven unanswered runs before their teammates rallied with two outs in the top of the ninth, then watched as Mason Thompson (their ninth pitcher of the night) gave up Aristides Aquino’s sharp leadoff single off Luis García’s glove at second base to drive in the winning run.
“It was particularly difficult, especially as I was trying to cover the runner and keep him close to second base,” García said via interpreter Octavio Martinez, in a postgame Zoom session with reporters. “As I took my two shuffles to my left, I looked at the hitter, and the ball was hit sharply and it was hit to my left side. I just tried to put a glove on it and stop it. Unfortunately, I got just a little bit of the glove, and it came off and I wasn’t able to make the play.”
Soto’s streak of consecutive plate appearances reaching base finally ended at 12, but he still played a big role in this one. He reached base four times again, all of them via walk. And his two-out free pass in the top of the ninth, moments after back-to-back doubles by Lane Thomas and Alcides Escobar, kept the game alive. And when Reds closer Mychal Givens also walked Josh Bell, the Nationals had the bases loaded and García at the plate in a huge spot.
The 21-year-old, given a chance to bat fifth the last two nights while Yadiel Hernandez is away on paternity leave, delivered a clutch hit, finding a hole on the left side of the infield to drive in two runs and tie this wild ballgame.
“In a moment like that, I’m just trying to focus on waiting and picking out my pitch,” García said. “Early in the count, he didn’t throw my pitch and I fell behind in the count. But with two strikes, I was just trying to battle, put the ball in play, hit the ball hard somewhere. And I was able to do that and fortunately help the team out in that situation.”
Kyle Finnegan nearly lost it in the bottom of the ninth but struck out Nick Castellanos with two on and two out to extend the game. The Nationals failed to advance their automatic runner in both the top of the 10th and 11th. Austin Voth managed to strand the bases loaded in the bottom of the 10th, but Thompson allowed the Reds to score their automatic runner in the bottom of the 11th, leaving the Nats a major-league-worst 2-11 in extra innings this season.
“My big thing in situations like that is, we’ve got to move the baseball (when batting),” manager Davey Martinez said. “If all of a sudden you get to two strikes, you’re almost trying to tell yourself: ‘I’ve got to move the baseball to get the guy to third.’ That’s the big play right there. Today, we struck out a couple times. We couldn’t even get the guy over. And that hurts.”
Soto’s streak had to end eventually, but it didn’t have to end right off the bat tonight. And he made sure it wouldn’t by working a pair of full-count walks off Reds starter Sonny Gray. The first made him the club’s new record holder, surpassing Nick Johnson’s previous mark of 10 consecutive plate appearances reaching base. The second extended his streak to 12, a mere five shy of Piggy Ward’s all-time record that has stood since 1893.
Just as notable as the walks was the fact Soto came around to score following each of them. He scampered all the way around the bases on Bell’s first-inning double to right for the Nationals’ first run of the game. Then he was able to trot home on Keibert Ruiz’s two-out RBI single for the Nats’ fourth run of the night. That gave Soto 108 runs scored for the season, 11 shy of Alfonso Soriano’s club record established in 2006.
Ruiz would drive in another run, this time himself via his first homer as a member of the Nationals. The rookie catcher, now 15 for his last 30 and batting .302 in 17 games for his new club, lofted an inside fastball from Gray high and deep to right, then circled the bases to continue his recent surge at the plate.
“It feels good to hit the first one and get that one out of the way,” Ruiz said. “I’ve got to keep working, keep having my approach at the plate, keep looking for my pitch. And hopefully I can have some more coming.”
Escobar also took Gray deep, driving a 2-0 fastball to straightaway center field in the top of the third for his third of the season.
Soto, though, remained the center of attention. And when he stepped to the plate to lead off the fifth, now facing reliever Amir Garrett, the watch was back on. And for the first time in three days, a pitcher got the best of Soto. Garrett managed to get him to swing meekly at a 3-2 slider out of the zone, and thus did the streak end at 12.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Martinez said. “He’s one of the best when it comes to plate discipline, and you see it every night. It doesn’t shock me that he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s been so good at taking pitches, getting on base, and getting pitches he can hit and hitting them hard.”
With the end of the streak, the attention could shift back to everyone else, most notably the Nationals pitching staff, which after a nice run over the last three days reverted back to its previous, more troubling form.
It began with Espino, who really only made two mistakes during his five innings but was burned by both of them. During a long battle with Max Schrock in the bottom of the third, Espino threw six consecutive fastballs. Schrock fouled off the first five. He homered on the sixth, putting the Reds on the board.
Two innings later, Espino watched pinch-hitter Delino DeShields blast a fastball to center, trimming the Nationals’ lead to 4-3. And though his starter’s pitch count was only 83, Martinez didn’t want to risk letting Espino face the heart of the Cincinnati order a third time.
So the call went to the bullpen for the sixth inning. And as too often has been the case this year, the relievers who made their way to the mound weren’t able to hold up their end of the bargain.
“We battled back to tie the game,” Martinez said. “When you go to extra innings, all hands on deck.”