This was technically the Blue Jays’ home opener, since they were forced to move out of Canada for the season. The government didn’t want them or visiting teams to come and go amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. They plan to play almost half of their 60-game schedule at their Class AAA facility in Buffalo.
But after winning here Monday and Tuesday, it was most logical to stay. Scherzer and rookie Nate Pearson engaged in a full-on pitchers duel. Daniel Hudson recorded five outs for Washington out of the bullpen. They improved to 2-4 by a matter of inches, after Andrew Stevenson just beat Cavan Biggio to second base on Eaton’s game-winning single in the 10th.
“I kind of only have one gear when it’s running,” Stevenson said when asked if he pushed harder once Eaton’s single shot off reliever Shun Yamaguchi’s foot and into the air. “It’s wide open.”
Even before this game began — and long before Asdrúbal Cabrera padded the lead with a bases-clearing triple — the Nationals kept thinning. Howie Kendrick was a late scratch from the lineup with upper-back stiffness. He was still available to pinch hit, if needed, but was otherwise replaced by Carter Kieboom, who played third while Cabrera filled Kendrick’s designated hitter spot.
Stephen Strasburg will miss a second start, Manager Dave Martinez announced, as he deals with nerve irritation in his throwing hand. He threw from 75 to 80 feet on flat ground Wednesday, and is making incremental progress.
And then there’s Juan Soto. Washington’s 21-year-old star is still sidelined after testing positive for the coronavirus on July 23. He has since received back-to-back negative results from MLB-contracted labs, and the league has cleared him to return. But Soto and the Nationals are waiting on the city, hoping the left fielder can begin working out this weekend.
“He’s hurting right now. He wants to be with the guys,” Martinez said of Soto, though the manager couldn’t expand on D.C.’s clearance process. “He’s just waiting, trying to get back as soon as possible.”
Without Soto for the sixth straight game, the Nationals met another twist. As the road team in their home ballpark, they took batting practice second. They looked up to see a Blue Jays logo on the big screen. Their public address announcer, Jerome Hruska, read their lineup in a monotone voice, then reached back to belt out the Blue Jays’ starters.
Soon the Nationals hit first against top prospect Pearson. The 23-year-old shined in his major league debut, mixing high-90s heat with a sharp slider and curve. He stuck out Trea Turner to start the outing. He put two on in the third, inviting trouble, then got Cabrera to bounce out to second. In the fifth, his final inning, he struck out Stevenson and Victor Robles with sliders. Fake crowd noise followed to make the Blue Jays feel at home.
But it remained scoreless when Pearson exited at 75 pitches. That’s because Scherzer, 13 years his senior, was just as sharp. The Nationals’ ace retired 13 batters in a row between the third and seventh. When he finished that inning, he had a long talk with Martinez and pitching coach Paul Menhart in the dugout. He was at 98 pitches. He reached 99 in his last appearance, on July 23, yet had not pitched into the eighth since June 30, 2019.
No one moved to throw in the bullpen. The Nationals quickly went down one-two-three in the top half. Then Scherzer was back out, allowed a leadoff single, pinch runner Anthony Alford stole second, and moved to third after Scherzer chucked a pickoff throw into center. He was hooked two batters later, once he walked Derek Fisher, and exited at 112 pitches, the most thrown in a game so far this year.
“I fully intended to do that no matter when that was going to happen,” Scherzer said of shouldering a big workload in each of his first two starts. “During the shutdown, I made sure I was training just as hard, because I knew as soon as we got back going I had to be ready to go.”
Enter Hudson, who’s had a knack for averting danger the past two seasons. He was able to do so again, despite Teoscar Hernández hitting a 108.1-mph laser up the middle. Turner, drawn in with a runner on third, dove to snare it, flipped the ball to Starlin Castro at second, and Castro’s throw beat the speedy Hernández to first.
The double play triggered cheers in the dugout. Hudson struck out the side in the ninth. Then the Nationals got their first taste of the new extra-innings rule, effective only this season. The last out of the previous inning starts on second. In this case, Martinez plugged in pinch-runner Emilio Bonifacio for Castro.
But the Nationals would really lean on Stevenson’s speed. Stevenson, playing left in place of Soto, worked a walk to load the bases.And after Robles and Turner struck out, and the rally fell into Eaton’s hands, Eaton ripped a grounder that clipped Yamaguchi’s cleat and floated. Biggio waited for it while Stevenson dashed toward second. Biggio dove, Stevenson slid, and Stevenson, appearing safe, pushed his heels back to hold the base.
A replay review confirmed the call. The Nationals, on the road in Washington, would come out on top.
This story has been updated to correct the number of outs Hudson recorded.