Ruiz proving his worth to Nats down the stretch

August 10th, 2022

CHICAGO -- Nationals manager Dave Martinez has had his fill of losing. After being a bench coach for the 2016 World Series champion Cubs and leading Washington all the way to a title three years ago, he is now managing a club close to 40 games below .500 and in last place in its division.

“I hate it,” Martinez said of the losses that have piled up this year. “I’m not going to lie to you, this is tough.”

He got a small reprieve with a 6-5 win over the Cubs on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field. The victory was propelled in part by catcher Keibert Ruiz going deep twice, a solo shot in the second inning and a three-run homer in the fourth. It was the first multihomer game of Ruiz’s career.

The 24-year-old has not hit for much power this season -- his home runs on Tuesday were his fifth and sixth of the year -- but he was able to turn on a pair of inside pitches, which represents valuable growth for him as a hitter. Hitting pitches on the inside part of the zone is something Ruiz has been working on in the batting cage, Martinez said. By working on getting better back-loaded on his back leg with hitting coach Darnell Coles, Ruiz was in a stronger position to drive Cubs starter Marcus Stroman’s sinker in the second inning and a cutter in the fourth.

Nationals starter Paolo Espino held the Cubs to one run in five innings, on a solo home run by Seiya Suzuki in the second. Espino scattered five hits otherwise, striking out five while not giving up a walk.

But the Nationals' bullpen nearly spoiled Ruiz and Espino’s work. Going into the seventh inning with a 4-1 lead, Erasmo Ramírez and Kyle Finnegan gave up seven singles and four runs to give the Cubs a 5-4 lead. Ruiz helped prevent an extra run from scoring in that inning, receiving center fielder Lane Thomas’s throw and completing the tag at home on Rafael Ortega.

The Nationals regained the lead in the eighth inning, thanks to Joey Meneses’ two-run homer that landed in the left-field basket. Meneses, 30, was called up from Triple-A Rochester just a week ago after spending over a decade in the Minors.

Even with his team so far down in the standings, Martinez is pushing for players to stay motivated to find reasons to keep trying to win in the last eight weeks of the season. Especially the less experienced members of the clubhouse, like Ruiz, who is playing in his first full season.

“For some of these guys, especially the younger guys, we’re trying to push them to understand, ‘Hey, play for something. Put something in your mind that you want to play for. And play like your hair is on fire,’” Martinez said.

Because Finnegan pitched in the seventh, Martinez went with Carl Edwards Jr. for the final outs. Edwards was making his return to Wrigley Field for the first time as a visitor. He debuted with the Cubs in 2015 and is most remembered in Chicago for getting the first two outs of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.

Despite the gravity of the situation, with Edwards there to preserve the Nationals’ one-run lead, many of the Wrigley fans stood and cheered for him when he took the mound.

"That’s one thing about this place, you do something good for them, they’re going to love you forever,” Edwards said.

But he left the niceties behind him, striking out old teammates and friends Willson Contreras and Ian Happ on the way to a four-out save.

“Those are buddies, but at the same time, this is my job, so I have to tell myself no matter what, just compete. Go right at them and have fun,” Edwards said.

With two months left in the season, Martinez and the Nationals have a lot of games remaining to find things to play for. Whether it’s something personal or just some positive momentum going into next season, Martinez said he is still encouraging his players to compete like they are fighting for a playoff spot. That’s how he said he approached poor seasons when he was a player.

Beyond the next two months, what happens in these last several weeks of the season also has an effect on the bigger picture. Particularly for young players like Ruiz or guys who are new to the Majors, like Meneses. As the Nationals' organization takes stock of its roster going forward from the Juan Soto trade, performances in games like Tuesday night's can have a bearing on the future.

“It means a lot going into the winter,” Martinez said. “We have to make a lot of decisions, and part of those decisions is what we see in the last couple months, not what we saw in April or May.”