CHICAGO — If there was still reason to doubt whether Trea Turner is at full strength, to believe he’s playing because the Washington Nationals so badly need him to, he saw to those concerns Monday night.
Turner, the Nationals’ spark-plug shortstop, finished a single shy of the cycle in a 12-1 win over the Chicago White Sox, punishing them with a double, a triple and a 425-foot solo home run that climbed way up the left field seats. And as it turned out, a lot rode on his burst of production.
It keyed a 16-hit offensive outburst. It helped him tally two RBI and two runs. It pushed starter Aníbal Sánchez to his second win and, maybe most importantly, eased the strain on Washington’s bullpen before the final nine outs were recorded by Tanner Rainey, Tony Sipp and Trevor Rosenthal, who was encouraging in his first appearance since he went to the minors to rediscover his command.
Since his return from a broken right index finger May 17, Turner often had seemed bothered by the injury. His throws sailed high and wide of first base. He removed that finger from his hitting grip, and a handful of swings ended with his bat flying to the backstop. But Turner is hitting .352 in his past 12 games and, by staying hot in Chicago, paced the Nationals to a blowout for their 12th win in 16 games.
They are 31-35 and, with the Philadelphia Phillies’ loss Monday, have inched within six games of the top of a crowded National League East.
Matt Adams exited with a left oblique strain, suffered on a check swing in the sixth inning, and will be reevaluated Tuesday morning. Manager Dave Martinez was concerned and expects Adams to miss a day or two, at least, with his first base options thinned to Howie Kendrick and Gerardo Parra.
Everything else is tilting the Nationals’ way — and Turner’s.
“After missing seven weeks and not playing game speed, it takes a little bit to catch up,” Martinez said. “And I think we’re starting to see Trea play the way he’s capable of playing. It’s good to see.”
A day after they crushed back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs to beat the San Diego Padres, with Turner bashing the second one, the Nationals started with some small ball against the White Sox. Their first run came in the second when Kendrick turned an 0-2 count into a walk, went first to third on Adams’s single and came in on Kurt Suzuki’s sacrifice fly. Their next came an inning later, once Turner tripled and Adam Eaton scored him with a blooper to right off journeyman right-hander Odrisamer Despaigne.
And right away, the Nationals held a lead for the 18th time in their past 19 games. They were 11-7 in those contests heading into Monday, a handful of their advantages disintegrating before they could tally 27 outs. That had mostly been the bullpen’s fault — the frustrating theme for 2019 — but Washington also had gotten two bad outings from Patrick Corbin and, at times, failed to tack on early runs when it should have.
But here was another chance to roll with a quick lead and bury an opponent. Turner stretched the advantage in the fifth with that solo shot, his fifth of the season. Sánchez, by then, had sunk into a rhythm and was carving his way through the White Sox. The 35-year-old right-hander has been dominant since he returned from the injured list May 29, giving up just one run in 11⅓ innings ahead of this outing. And he only continued that here, pushing a rough start to this season deeper into the past, mixing seven pitches to give up one run in six innings.
He was still at 65 pitches after giving up a homer in the sixth, a portrait of efficiency, but Martinez had a conundrum to wrestle with: keep pushing Sánchez through a third time through the order, a task that has been far too tall for him this year, or go to a bullpen that is only beginning to prove itself? Then Turner took pressure off Martinez by doubling home Victor Robles in the seventh, restoring the Nationals’ advantage to three runs before they scored eight more in the last two innings.
“I feel like I’m in more of a consistent spot right now,” Turner said. “Giving myself a chance to hit more pitches in the zone and not chasing, just commanding the zone for the most part.”
That double also left Turner a single short of his second career cycle with nine outs to go. He got his first chance to single in the eighth, against White Sox reliever Thyago Vieira, but struck out looking. He got another opportunity in the ninth, after Suzuki extended the inning with a grand slam, but popped out to second base.
So setting up a victory — and Rosenthal’s chance to get back on a major league mound — would have to be enough for Turner on Monday. Martinez had been looking for a low-leverage situation for Rosenthal since he rejoined the Nationals on Saturday, after a month-long rehab assignment with Class AA Harrisburg. And this, a sudden 11-run lead in the ninth, was certainly that.
Rosenthal walked the first hitter he faced on four pitches, showing the same lack of control that landed him in the minors. Then Jose Abreu rolled a ball up the middle that looked destined for center field until it wasn’t. And who made the diving stop to start a double play, helping Rosenthal settle in with two needed outs before he finished the game? It was Turner.
Of course it was.