CHICAGO — Before the Washington Nationals’ game Tuesday night against the Chicago Cubs, catcher Keibert Ruiz sat in the dugout, shaking his bat in his hands as he watched his teammates work out at Wrigley Field.
The outburst marked the first multihomer game of Ruiz’s career and it made him only the fifth Nationals catcher to accomplish the feat. It also snapped a six-game losing streak — including the first five contests on this seven-game trip.
“Obviously I want to hit homers and I want to be better with my offense,” Ruiz said after the game. “I just have to control what I can control and keep working hard every day.”
When the Nationals traded Max Scherzer and Trea Turner last year, they acquired Ruiz in hopes of getting a catcher who could be stout defensively and provide a middle-of-the-order bat.
If he’s a defense-first catcher moving forward, that would be good value for the Nationals. Ruiz entered Tuesday’s game tied with the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto for the league lead with 18 runners caught stealing and moved ahead when he caught Seiya Suzuki trying to swipe second base in the ninth.
But the bonus could be Ruiz’s bat, which has been inconsistent in his first full season in Washington. He has chased balls outside the zone at times and entered Tuesday with just four home runs in 317 at-bats.
In the second inning, Ruiz got a sinker in on his hands and turned on the ball, sending it 384 feet down the right field line to give Washington a 1-0 cushion. That lead was short-lived when Paolo Espino allowed a solo shot to Suzuki in the bottom of the inning.
So Ruiz stepped up again in the fourth, this time with two men on. Stroman tried to jam him inside again — with a cutter instead of a sinker — but Ruiz’s swing beat the ball to the spot.
The ball ricocheted off the bleachers and back onto the field, so the umpires didn’t immediately signal a home run, unsure if the ball went out. Ruiz was certain. He kept rounding the bases and, after the umpires conferred, they ruled it a home run and the Nationals led 4-1.
“When they pitch him in, he’s going to have to turn on a couple balls,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “He got two balls in there where he got his hands through and stayed behind the ball and drove them.”
The Cubs jumped in front in the seventh, scoring four runs on seven singles. The inning included an out at the plate: Lane Thomas threw out Rafael Ortega on a play that included Ruiz making a nice tag.
Meneses then provided the difference in the eighth, blasting a misplaced curveball from Mark Leiter Jr. 358 feet to left to score Maikel Franco. Carl Edwards Jr., a former Cub, got through the ninth to end the Nationals’ skid.
“Even though I was in front of the pitch a little bit, I knew I hit it in the sweet spot of the bat,” Meneses said through an interpreter. “Initially, I wasn’t sure (it was a homer), but I knew it had a chance.”
Why was Nelson Cruz removed from the game in the fifth inning? Martinez said he was taken out with posterior right shoulder soreness after Cruz grimaced while swinging the bat. Cruz tried to swing in the cage to loosen up, but was replaced by Maikel Franco.
Is Patrick Corbin still in the rotation? Yes, and he is scheduled to start next Tuesday at home against the Cubs. The Nationals are off Thursday, Corbin’s start day on regular rest, so Martinez opted to skip his start so he could get some extra work in bullpen sessions with pitching coach Jim Hickey.
Corbin’s struggles are well-documented and have been especially acute lately. He has failed to make it out of the first inning in two of his past three outings, and his ERA sits at 7.02. Martinez said Corbin was clearly frustrated when he spoke with him and Hickey, but the left-hander wanted to continue starting and finish the season strong.
“Regardless of what anyone thinks, he’s going to be one of our starters next year and the year after that,” Martinez said.
Corbin is in the fourth year of a six-year, $140 million contract.
What moves did the Nationals make before Tuesday’s game? They claimed left-handed reliever Jake McGee off waivers from Milwaukee and designated outfielder Donovan Casey for assignment to clear space on the 40-man roster. Casey was one of the four prospects that the Nationals received in last year’s deal for Scherzer and Turner; Ruiz and Josiah Gray are in the majors, while Gerardo Carrillo is rehabbing with high Class A Wilmington.
McGee will meet the team in Washington on Friday. The move gives the Nationals a left-handed arm out of the bullpen, something they have lacked for most of the year. Sean Doolittle filled that void until he was injured early in the season; Josh Rogers and Evan Lee are also lefties who were available as long relievers. But Doolittle and Lee are injured. Rogers was designated for assignment this month.
The move to cut Casey is a reminder that not every prospect in trade deadline deals works out. Casey was called up April 15 and looked slated to make his major league debut, but he never played and was optioned out five days later. He never made it back to the majors as he struggled with Class AAA Rochester, hitting .219 with a .293 on-base percentage in 67 games