Juan Soto, Nationals power through early mistakes in win over Mets

Juan Soto, Nationals power through early mistakes in win over Mets
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About a month ago, when the Washington Nationals were an ever-hopeful 0-0, they expected more games to look like Wednesday night’s 8-3 win over the New York Mets. The logic went that, even with shaky pitching—and even if their defense struggled with the fundamental tasks of catching and throwing—the Nationals could occasionally hide their flaws with middle-of-the-order power.

However, more simply put, they would sometimes score more than the many runs they allow.

But ahead of this victory at Nationals Park, the template had gotten limited use by last-place Washington (11-21). As the top of the first unfolded, the crowd’s groans sounded like here we go again. Brandon Nimmo, the Mets’ leadoff batter, slipped a double against the shift and Yadiel Hernandez bobbled it in left. Starling Marte followed with a bunt, which led Maikel Franco to whip a throw past Josh Bell at first, which led to Nimmo skipping home and Marte advancing to second on the error. Then Pete Alonso tagged Aaron Sanchez with a two-run shot to left, using a sinker that was in and a bit off the plate.

The Nationals blinked and were down 3-0. In the next two innings, though, their bats erupted for eight runs. That middle-of-the-order power thumped.

The Nationals defense, dogged by ‘lazy’ mistakes, is struggling

To set up the noise, César Hernández singled in each of the first three innings. But the early mistakes were mostly buried by big swings from Juan Soto and Nelson Cruz. Soto whacked Tylor Megill’s middle-middle fastball to right for a two-run shot in the first (his seventh of the season). Cruz lifted a change-up 436 feet to left-center for a three-run homer in the second (his fourth).

“Huge … and more for them,” Sanchez said of Soto and Cruz going deep. “I know they’ve probably wanted to do more of that throughout the year.”

In between, Keibert Ruiz punched an RBI single; Franco drove in Yadiel Hernandez, who had doubled, with a sacrifice fly; and Dee Strange-Gordon capped the first with a slapped single to the left. Megill allowed nine earned runs in his first six starts combined, then eight in 1⅓ innings Wednesday. Sanchez settled in to retire 15 of the final 18 batters he faced, slowing the Mets (21-11) with a steady mix of sinkers and curves.

Entering the game, the Nationals’ offense had made a lot of contact, collected a lot of hits and scored 4.13 runs per game, right around league average. Their on-base-plus-slugging percentage, a good predictor of team success, ranked 12th of 30 teams. They were looking for more from Cruz — the 41-year-old signed to a one-year, $15 million deal to mash. And they were looking for more from Soto, who has been productive outside of his at-bats with men in scoring position, when Washington needs him most.

On Wednesday, the Nationals received all of that in two innings to snap a nine-game losing streak at home. They had not topped three runs in their own ballpark since April 19.

“Just trying to swing at strikes and make sure I get the right pitches to hit,” said Cruz, who has been swinging at slightly more balls this year than in recent seasons. “It was nice to see the whole lineup come back.”

Why did Sanchez exit in the sixth after only 75 pitches? While working through the Mets’ order for a third time, Sanchez appeared to take Alonso’s 113-mph comebacker off the bottom of his glove hand. After a chat with Manager Dave Martinez and Paul Lessard, the head athletic trainer, Sanchez walked off to an earned ovation from the crowd. His final line — 5⅓ innings, six hits, three earned runs, no walks, one strikeout — couldn’t capture how well he responded to Alonso’s homer.

Two of the Mets’ final three hits off Sanchez were bleeders that narrowly sneaked through the infield. The third, however, was scorched to the wrong place, knocking the 29-year-old out of his best start of the year. X-rays on his hand were negative.

“It’s baseball,” Sanchez said. “I mean, maybe I shouldn’t have made the pitch there, but it is what it is. After you throw the pitch, you can’t control what the outcome is and you learn that along the way.”

Who followed Sanchez out of the bullpen? Austin Voth, Victor Arano and Paolo Espino. Voth entered after Sanchez was struck by Alonso’s line drive, retiring four batters and yielding two hits. Arano followed, finishing the seventh before retiring the side in order in the eighth. Espino was tasked with holding a five-run lead in the ninth. The Mets made that uncomfortable with back-to-back singles to begin the inning, and Tanner Rainey lightly threw in the bullpen, just in case it spiraled out of hand. But Espino handled the next three batters.

The Nationals pitched to 37 batters and issued zero walks. They are 9-6 when their opponent walks three or fewer times, a stat Martinez cited often Wednesday.

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