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Nats tweak the lineup and end up with a lopsided win over the Brewers

Nationals 8, Brewers 2

The Nationals' Keibert Ruiz had an RBI double during the fourth inning Sunday. (Morry Gash/AP)
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MILWAUKEE — No, an offense is not fixed on one run-filled Sunday at American Family Field or any other renamed place. But Dave Martinez did hit the managerial jackpot of making a lineup change and seeing results in an 8-2 win over the Milwaukee Brewers for his Washington Nationals. Call it good timing or good luck, depending on your worldview. Then maybe check back in a week to see how everything looks.

Before the series finale here, Martinez bumped a struggling Juan Soto from second to third in the order. And with hopes of stirring a bit more traffic in front of Soto, he slid catcher Keibert Ruiz into the No. 2 spot against Brewers right-hander Freddy Peralta. Ruiz had reached base in nine of his previous 10 games. Soto was 2 for 20 in his past six games, one of the worst stretches of his four-year career.

“Get someone else up there to try to get on for Juan. That was the biggest thing,” Martinez explained before the sweep-avoiding win. “Kind of extend our lineup a little bit more and see what happens. I mean, if [Ruiz] can get on base, if [César Hernández] and him can get on base, then our big three guys maybe can do something. … Keibert is swinging the bat well, so I wanted to get him up at the top.”

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For three innings, the decision had little to do with the Nationals (14-28) taking a two-run lead. Lane Thomas cracked a second-inning RBI double that was badly misplayed by Hunter Renfroe in right. In the third, Nelson Cruz knocked in Hernández with a soft single to right. In the fourth, though, the offense surged as Ruiz and Soto chipped in.

Ruiz lifted an RBI double to the left field corner, one of eight consecutive hits for the Nationals to start the inning. Soto, who entered 2 for 28 with runners in scoring position, rolled a single up the middle to score two against left-handed reliever Brent Suter. Ruiz otherwise struck out, flied out, grounded into a double play and reached on an error to cool off a bit. Soto grounded out three times and reached on an error, too.

“I don’t notice it as much unless I was getting moved somewhere,” Thomas said of Martinez’s lineup tweak. “I think you can put a lot of guys in this lineup in a lot of different places just because a lot of guys can run and hit and do different things.”

The grand scheme is unlikely to lend much weight to Sunday’s fourth-inning rally. The Nationals are still deep in last place. They still need to get Soto, Cruz and Josh Bell on track at the same time. But this stretch of at-bats may have solidified this lineup’s top — Hernández, Ruiz, Soto — for at least the foreseeable future. That’s what the right small sample can do.

Yadiel Hernandez began the inning by poking a single against the shift and into left. The next batter, Maikel Franco, singled to right with Hernandez running on the pitch, putting runners on first and third. And after Thomas pulled a double to left, Peralta exited at 59 pitches with right shoulder discomfort.

Suter was greeted with back-to-back safety squeezes by Dee Strange-Gordon and César Hernández. Then Ruiz stepped in, then Soto stepped in, then the rest of the lineup unfolded again from there.

Since the beginning of spring training, Martinez has been adamant about batting Soto second. Studies have shown that, across a season, No. 2 hitters have the most chances to affect the final score. The Nationals also researched how often Soto finished games in the on-deck circle in 2021, leading them to push for an extra handful of at-bats.

But they arrived Sunday with a bottom-10 offense by many metrics, needing to shift something. Soto remains in a rut. Ruiz and Thomas ended the 2-4 road trip as the club’s hottest hitters. For those reasons, Martinez was dealing with human nature more than the logic he leaned on for Washington’s first 41 games. It just so happened that the 42nd brought a rare lopsided win.

“We need to start scoring some runs consistently,” he said. “So this is something that I’m going to try here for a little while and see if it works.”

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Why did Riley Adams pinch-hit for Nelson Cruz in the seventh? Cruz sprained his right ankle while awkwardly sliding into second base in the fourth. He took a few swings in the cage, felt discomfort and was lifted for Adams as a precaution. Martinez called Cruz day-to-day and said he’ll be reevaluated Monday. The manager then brushed aside a question about whether Washington will need to make a roster move to replace Cruz before a three-game series with the Los Angeles Dodgers at Nationals Park.

Why did Martinez pitch his top relievers in a six-run game? “They got to get out there,” he said of using Steve Cishek, Kyle Finnegan and Tanner Rainey behind starter Aaron Sanchez and Josh Rogers. “They haven’t been out there in some time, so I wanted to keep them fresh. It’s a fine line for me, but all of a sudden here we come and we’re in a big high-leverage situation and they haven’t pitched in five days. So I want to keep them fresh.”