No one else seemed to have the answers, so the Washington Nationals turned to their older veterans. The team was stuck in a harrowing weekend, overmatched by the Atlanta Braves and unable to put the brakes on this September skid. The Nationals couldn’t score and couldn’t stop getting scored on as their cushion in the National League wild-card race dwindled to levels worthy of a red alert. Then, on Sunday, Howie Kendrick and Aníbal Sánchez delivered.
The steadying veterans have, in some ways, played this part all season. Kendrick has plugged holes created by injured teammates on defense and displayed an uncanny knack for finding holes on offense. Sánchez has started streaks and stopped slides such as this one as the fourth Beatle of the Nationals’ rotation. Kendrick’s two-run single in the third inning and solo home run in the fifth were the two most important hits that complemented seven dominant, scoreless innings from Sánchez in a sweep-averting, standings-maintaining 7-0 victory at Nationals Park.
“This is a veteran guy. When the team needs a lift, he’s a leader in that clubhouse,” bench coach Chip Hale said in what could have been a description of Kendrick or Sánchez. He later realized this when he described Kendrick’s ability to stay productive despite inconsistent at-bats this season: “He’s a pro, and he’s a lot like the offensive Sánchez.”
The Nationals’ win kept them 1 1/2 games up for the top wild-card spot and 2½ games up for the second spot after the Chicago Cubs, with another blowout victory, and the Milwaukee Brewers, with a ninth-inning grand slam, stayed in hot pursuit. The Nationals secured the win without their manager; Dave Martinez left Nationals Park in the sixth inning and was taken to a hospital because he felt sick. Hale managed in his place and said the hospital trip was precautionary. The team believes its manager will be in St. Louis on Monday for the start of a three-game series against the Cardinals.
“We’re expecting everything will be good,” Hale said.
Martinez used Kendrick as a pinch hitter in the first two games against the Braves, but he rested Ryan Zimmerman on Sunday, started the 36-year-old at first base and reaped the reward. Kendrick sparked an offense that had left Martinez nonplussed Saturday night: “We’re swinging the bats, just not getting any hits, not creating anything offensively right now.”
Catcher Yan Gomes ignited things with a two-run single in the second inning, and Kendrick added some tinder with another in the third. The Braves fanned the flames themselves when reliever Jeremy Walker walked in a run against his first batter in the third, and Kendrick kept them going. The veteran watched reliever Grant Dayton pump three four-seam fastballs by Juan Soto for a strikeout in the fifth and knew what to expect. The first four-seamer Kendrick got in the zone ended up in the left field seats. A productive double play in the sixth capped the scoring.
This season, in some ways, outdoes Kendrick’s age-27 season, when he was an all-star with the Los Angeles Angels. His 15 homers in 304 at-bats and .928 on-base-plus-slugging percentage are the best rates of his career. The resurgence impressed Kendrick himself, who missed most of last season with a ruptured right Achilles’ tendon. He predicted that, because teams now prioritize youth, he wouldn’t still be in baseball if 2018 were the last year of his contract. But now he is enjoying sitting a few lockers away from Soto and Victor Robles, the faces of that youth movement, as well as his role supporting them.
“I’m not an everyday guy anymore, and I know that and [Martinez] knows,” Kendrick said. “I’m not going to complain one bit about the way I’ve been used. When I play, I play; when I don’t, I’m ready.”
The Nationals inflicted the lion’s share of the damage against Braves starter Max Fried, who two weeks earlier had one-hit them over seven scoreless innings. They worked the young left-hander, spoiling his out pitches and jumping on juicy ones down. They knocked him out after 2⅓ innings, the first time they had bounced a starter without an injury before the third inning in almost a month (Aug. 19 at Pittsburgh).
Kendrick called Fried “tough” and said he thought Fried jammed him on his run-scoring single that put Fried on the ropes. Kendrick wanted to foul the four-seamer away and try again. The ball instead snapped his bat and somehow flew into center for a single.
“He’s one of those special guys, and he has great stuff,” Kendrick said. “Today he was just off.”
The early cushion proved more than enough for the Nationals. Sánchez again quietly dominated one of baseball’s best lineups, not overwhelming anyone (three strikeouts) but forcing weak contact. The 35-year-old right-hander baffled the Braves by using almost exclusively fastballs and his multiple change-ups, 32 of the one that goes up-down, seven of the traditional circle change. He used them in any count to keep Atlanta’s hitters off-balance.
“When I can command my fastball, my change-up is really good,” Sánchez said. “My change-up is the best pitch for me.”
In all, Sánchez limited the Braves to three hits, and his seven strong innings (plus the offense’s separation) gave his team a lift one night after Martinez felt limited in his bullpen because the high-leverage options were taxed. The lead proved bullpen-proof, and the clubhouse after the game felt lighter. Sánchez celebrated by carrying a cake — brown frosting, “Happy birthday!” in yellow icing — into the team dining room for catcher Tres Barrera. The September call-up was 25, and the whole team sang to him.
Baseball can warp age. Kendrick is only 11 years older than Barrera, but Sánchez said the Nationals sometimes kid around and call Kendrick “the old man back in the game.” Sánchez grinned at the joke. The pitcher is only seven months younger than the hitter, but if he registered a hint of irony, he didn’t betray it. The only numbers that really mattered anyway were the ones on the scoreboard.