TORONTO — Adam Eaton saw the ball off the bat. Then, suddenly, it was gone, consumed by the Toronto twilight. All he could do was act, hold a straight face until the last possible minute. Perhaps if the base runners didn’t know he didn’t have it, they would hold in place.
Gio Gonzalez didn’t see the ball either and told Eaton so when the right fielder came over to apologize later. Had Eaton caught the ball, Gonzalez would have had a runner on first with one out in the seventh, a chance to end his outing on a high note. Because he didn’t catch it, because it bounced behind him and over the fence for a ground-rule double, Gonzalez’s evening ended in a feeling of helplessness as he watched Justin Miller allow those runs to score. The Blue Jays took the series opener, 6-5.
The Nationals have not played at Rogers Centre since 2012, which means many members of their current roster have never played here at all. Matt Adams couldn’t find the batting cage, which prompted Pedro Severino to suggest the first baseman take an Uber there, it was so far away. Adams had never been out of the country before this trip — not once, ever.
“I finally made it out,” he joked. He had been injured when the Cardinals came here years before. He might be injured when the Nationals leave here Sunday, too. Adams took a pitch off his hand while trying to bunt in the second inning, then left the game in the third. His left index finger was sore after the game. They will know more about his long-term prognosis Saturday.
But injuries like those have led to revelations, such as the emergence of Juan Soto. Two days after stealing the show at Yankee Stadium with two homers, Soto doubled off the wall in dead center in his first at-bat in Canada. He scored on Severino’s single that pushed the Nationals’ lead to 2-0 in the second inning.
Soto’s emergence has fostered a greater outfield predicament than these Nationals could have imagined. He is hitting so well, he cannot be moved out of his spot in left field. Bryce Harper is Bryce Harper, so he cannot go anywhere, either.
When Eaton returned from the disabled list last week, Manager Dave Martinez and GM Mike Rizzo decided they would play him in right field, move Harper to center and keep Soto in left — at least against right-handed pitchers such as Blue Jays starter Aaron Sanchez. Michael A. Taylor, the best defender of the bunch, the one who can change games for the better in center field, has been sitting against right-handed pitching. His struggles offensively forced the decision. His talent defensively could earn him more playing time as the days go by, particularly if this outfield struggles as it has at times.
“I like the way they’re playing,” Martinez said. “. . . I played here. That sky at that time is tough. You see a lot of balls get lost like that.”
Eaton’s play sticks out in retrospect, though this outfield has not been perfect for a week or so now. Gonzalez has not been himself recently, either. Since Gonzalez joined the Nationals before that 2012 season, only one left-handed starter in baseball has been harder to homer against — Clayton Kershaw. Gonzalez had allowed five home runs in 74 2/3 innings entering Friday’s start.
In the third inning, he surrendered two home runs and the lead — one homer on a first-pitch change-up to Devon Travis, the other on a 3-0 fastball to Yangervis Solarte. The last time Gonzalez surrendered two home runs in one game was against the Cubs in the National League Division Series.
He settled down but was tiring when he started the seventh. Martinez let him begin at 94 pitches despite having a fresh bullpen, a decision he said he made because he liked Gonzalez against that part of the Blue Jays order.
Gonzalez surrendered a leadoff single, then got Teoscar Hernandez to hit what should have been a routine flyball for the first out. Eaton seemed to find it, then tossed his hands up to signal otherwise. The ball bounced behind him and over the fence.
“It’s a pretty helpless feeling. It is what it is,” Eaton said. “There’s no excuse for it, but it’s part of baseball.”
Eaton succeeded in keeping the runners on second and third, which meant that Gonzalez handed the ball to Miller. Miller had allowed two hits in 10⅔ scoreless innings since the Nationals called him up from Class AAA Syracuse, where he had not allowed a run either. Miller finally lapsed, surrendering a sacrifice fly that could have been the second out, then yielding a two-run home run to Solarte.
The Nationals put the tying run on to start the ninth when Wilmer Difo singled and stole second. He did not advance when the throw down bounced away. He was deked by a fake tag and didn’t seem to see the throw at all. Had he tried to advance, he might have earned an interference call.
Difo did take third on a flyout by pinch hitter Brian Goodwin but was left there when Eaton, normally patient, took a chance by swinging at a first pitch thrown by a man, Ryan Tepera, he had never faced. He grounded out with Difo unable to score. Trea Turner then struck out as the game ended with the tying run 90 feet away.
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