MINNEAPOLIS — Aníbal Sánchez was cruising, and keeping the Washington Nationals in a scoreless game, until he left a slider up and over the plate, and it wound up in a sea of cheering fans beyond the left field wall at Target Field.
One mistake. That’s all Sánchez could shake his head at as he walked off the field after seven innings, that misplaced slider rattling around his brain, Mitch Garver’s two-run homer soon leading to the Nationals’ 5-0 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Tuesday night. Washington’s offense did nothing against Twins starter José Berríos and the bullpen behind him. The Nationals went down in order in all but two innings. They finished with just two hits and, after struggling in Atlanta over the weekend, have a prolonged slump to address. And while Sánchez kept them in it — and was nearly unhittable — he couldn’t take that middle-in slider back.
“I just want to make that pitch in the dirt,” he said. “Just one mistake in the whole night, and I paid for it.”
The Nationals arrived in Minnesota in full control of their postseason chances. They had a 2½ -game lead over the Chicago Cubs for the National League’s top wild-card spot. They had a 4½ -game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers to play in the wild-card game at all, with or without home-field advantage. But those advantages could only shrink once Adam Eaton struck out to end it. The Brewers, despite losing MVP candidate Christian Yelich to a season-ending knee injury, beat the Miami Marlins to nudge a game closer. The Cubs were just starting a matchup with the Padres in San Diego.
The Nationals also got here a bit banged up, an issue magnified by how tough of a stretch they’re in. They have lost five of their past six. They just finished four games with the first-place Braves. They have this three-game series against the Twins, who lead the American League Central, before hosting the Braves for three this weekend. Then they fly to St. Louis for three games with the Cardinals. This loss started a run of 20 games in 20 days to finish the regular season. The only break is three games at the Miami Marlins, and that’s on top of the pressure of a pennant race.
“It’s almost like the wild card is the bigger race right now, other than the Central,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “You’re just trying to play today like it is and move on to tomorrow. You can’t keep turning it on or off when you see other teams struggling. When things like this start happening, you have a target on your back.”
So it wasn’t ideal to face the Twins without catcher Kurt Suzuki and lefty Roenis Elías. Suzuki is day-to-day with right elbow inflammation, leaving Gomes to catch as much as possible, and possibly leading Manager Dave Martinez to start Raudy Read or Tres Barrera in the near future. Elías is one of just two left-handed relievers on the active roster, along with Sean Doolittle, leaving Martinez shorthanded against one of baseball’s better lineups.
Sánchez did his best to limit the bullpen’s workload. He just never got any run support. He was in a groove right away and matched Berríos for six innings. The Twins right-hander retired the first 13 batters he faced. Sánchez, throwing to Gomes for the first time this season, faced just one over the minimum through four innings. The only base runner through the fourth, for either team, came in the third when Sánchez issued a two-out walk to Jonathan Schoop but didn’t let him advance any farther.
Berríos filled the zone with his low-90s fastball and got nine of his 21 outs on the ground. He gave up the game’s first hit, to Howie Kendrick with one out in the fifth, but he stranded Kendrick at second after allowing him to advance on his own throwing error. He finished with four strikeouts in seven innings, got 20 called strikes on 94 pitches, and when he exited he had allowed just three base runners.
“We didn’t get very many pitches to hit,” Martinez said. “When we did, we did. Just couldn’t get [anything] going.”
The Twins’ first hit came in the bottom half of the fifth, when Willians Astudillo lifted an 0-2 sinker into the right-center field gap. He, too, was left on base as Sánchez continued to carve through Minnesota’s order. Sánchez allowed a double to Luis Arraez with one out in the sixth, giving the Twins their first runner in scoring position, but sharp defense helped him short-circuit the rally.
That kept the scoreboard blank heading into the seventh. Then Eddie Rosario led off the bottom of the inning with a double. Garver’s 30th homer of the season put the Twins ahead for good and left Sánchez wishing he had buried his slider in the dirt at Garver’s feet.
“One of the two teams has to win. One of the pitchers has to make a mistake,” Sánchez said, and his next line punctuated each answer of his postgame interview. “I did, and I paid for it.”
The 35-year-old whipped around after Garver made contact, just in time to see the ball sail out of the park. Juan Soto chased it in left until he ran out of room.
The Nationals got to face the Twins’ bullpen for two innings, getting a relief from Berríos, but the results didn’t change. Minnesota dented Tanner Rainey for three runs in the eighth, raising questions about why Martinez didn’t go with one of his high-leverage relievers, and the last one scored when Javy Guerra yielded a sacrifice fly.
Martinez chose to keep Hunter Strickland, Daniel Hudson and Wander Suero rested for when the Nationals have the lead. But his team never found an answer for a single swing.
Games do have a way of tightening this time of year.
Read more on the Washington Nationals: