Nats add suspense in ninth, still fall
st. louis — Before the Washington Nationals’ 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday night, Adrian Sanchez, a Nationals rookie with a pinch-running appearance and an inning at shortstop on his one-day big league résumé, told catcher Jose Lobaton how excited he was for his first at-bat. Lobaton told his fellow Venezuelan to relax. Playing time and opportunities would arise. Hours later, the two found themselves in the middle of a dramatic ninth-inning rally at Busch Stadium, assigned to avoid making the game’s final out.
Lobaton came up with runners on first and second, minutes after taking a foul ball off his right forearm, a ricochet that prompted a visit from the trainer and a brief delay. Fueled by adrenaline, Lobaton worked an eight-pitch walk against Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal to load the bases — and bring up Sanchez, the Nationals’ last available position player, as a pinch hitter.
“I saw him after me,” Lobaton said, “and I was like, ‘Oh, woah. What a situation.’ ”
The Cardinals (39-41) replaced Rosenthal with Matt Bowman, delaying the at-bat Sanchez was so anxiously waiting for all day. When he did finally step in, the Cardinals infield was back, but Sanchez didn’t contemplate bunting. Instead, he took an aggressive approach, swinging through the first pitch and fouling off the next two to fall to 0-2. Then he took three straight balls to run the count full before fouling off two more fastballs.
The suspense was building — fans groaning and teammates clapping with each act of survival. Bowman, the 2009 All-Met Player of the Year from St. Albans, then fired the ninth pitch of the at-bat, another two-seam fastball that tailed away from Sanchez off the outside corner. Sanchez took the pitch, believing it was a ball four. Home plate umpire Manny
Gonzalez disagreed, to Sanchez’s disbelief, to end the game.
“He wasn’t intimated. He was fighting off pitches,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “You hate to have an at-bat like that, and then it’s settled on apparently a bad call. You know, the kid’s trying to make a living, too. He tries to make his mark in the big leagues. He was our last man, but we knew that he was going to battle in that at-bat. It just wasn’t fair to him.”
The Nationals’ lineup, though still potent with four likely allstars, is not the same one that has led the majors in runs scored since about the opening bell. Already without Adam Eaton for the season and Jayson Werth until after the all-star break, the Nationals (47-34) traveled to St. Louis for a weekend series unsure of the top of their order’s makeup after losing Trea Turner to a fractured wrist Thursday.
The early returns are not encouraging. They have scored two runs in two games and squandered another impressive performance from Gio Gonzalez. Making his final case for a spot on the all-star team he has openly coveted, Gonzalez surrendered one run and two hits with a season-high nine strikeouts over seven innings. The two hits he allowed were the only balls to travel out of the infield.
He got some help from Anthony Rendon at third base. A day before all-star rosters are announced, Rendon displayed his credentials for the exhibition with a two-inning highlight reel. The demonstration began in the first inning with Rendon sprinting into foul territory in pursuit of a popup off Tommy Pham’s bat, tumbling into the stands to make the catch as shortstop Stephen Drew crashed on top of him. Rendon, who had two of Washington’s six hits, added a diving stop to get an out at second base in the second inning.
“Oh man, that was outstanding,” Baker said. “And he hurt something in his leg on the tarp. And then Drew twisted his ankle on the tarp. You could see how Anthony was limping around after that. I guess it subsided because he was running around better in the game.”
The only turmoil Gonzalez experienced Saturday was of his own doing. A pair of walks in the second inning led to Alex Mejia smacking a two-out RBI single to center field for his first major league hit. It was the second hit Gonzalez has surrendered this season with two outs and runners in scoring position in 37 at-bats.
He outlasted Michael Wacha, but Wacha didn’t allow a run before he was pulled after tossing 94 pitches in six innings on his 26th birthday. The difference doubled in the eighth inning, when Sammy Solis, activated from the disabled list earlier in the day, gave up a leadoff home run to Mejia on his first pitch since April 18.
The Nationals didn’t have a runner reach third base until the ninth inning, when Bryce Harper led off with a walk against Rosenthal and eventually scored on Drew’s two-out single, which kept Washington from its first shutout of the season. Lobaton, whose X-rays on the right forearm were negative after the game, followed with his walk to set the stage for Sanchez. The 26-year-old had been taking swings since the seventh inning, eagerly waiting for his opportunity. It came and he battled, but the result was unkind.
“I saw it a little outside,” Sanchez said of the at-bat’s decisive pitch. “I think it was a little outside. He struck me out, and it was a decision he made, and now I got to get ready for my next chance.”
The Nationals’ Gio Gonzalez throws a pitch during the third inning. He held the Cardinals to one run in seven innings but took the loss.