Kentucky Derby longshot helps Nats let loose, get win

May 8th, 2022

ANAHEIM -- Nearly every Nationals player and team personnel member huddled around a single television in the visiting clubhouse at Angel Stadium ahead of Saturday’s tilt. For just a few minutes, the Kentucky Derby was at the forefront of the club's attention.

Rich Strike -- the Derby's winning horse -- had slim odds of being victorious. The stunning upset brought disbelief and fits of laughter to the Nationals’ clubhouse as the team hit pause on some of the struggles of its current road trip.

Nationals manager Dave Martinez walked away from the TV pondering the sentiment that anything can happen. And just a couple of hours later, the Washington lineup proved once more to him that things can turn around after a slow start in a 7-3 win against the Angels.

The Nationals erupted for seven runs on 10 hits as Josiah Gray earned the win in his sixth start of the season. Gray allowed three earned runs in 5 1/3 innings in his first go-around against the Angels’ heavy-hitting lineup.

“[Mike] Trout, [Shohei] Ohtani, and [Anthony] Rendon are as accomplished as they come,” Gray said. “So being able to trust my stuff and just go out there with full confidence and be able to get those guys out is just another boost to my confidence that I can go out there every outing and know that my stuff plays at this level and I can get the best hitters out.”

Throughout the three-city trip, Washington’s offense has gone through the highs and lows of run production. After the Nats recorded seven runs on 15 hits in Colorado on Thursday, they were shut out the following day by the Angels in the series opener.

Washington has been a better team on the road than at Nationals Park this season. In fact, it's been one of the best away teams in baseball. The Nationals lead MLB with 6.0 runs scored per game on the road (90 runs in 15 road games). They also lead MLB in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging on the road.

In the first six games of the road trip, the Nationals slashed .364/.412/.522 and recorded 83 hits with 47 runs scored. Although the results have been askew, Martinez is pleased with the improvements made by the team to get the ball in the air.

“Things started clicking a little bit in San Francisco for us,” Martinez said. “We were hitting balls hard, we're just hitting balls on the ground. Now that their timing is getting a lot better, they're getting ready to hit every pitch. If we get the ball up in the zone, these guys can hit the ball hard.”

The offensive outburst that resulted in the Nationals’ 10th win of the season included a career milestone for Nelson Cruz.

The four-time Silver Slugger, who is in his first year with Washington, hit his 452nd career homer in the fifth inning, tying legendary Red Sox slugger Carl Yastrzemski for No. 39 on the all-time list.

Washington was ahead by one run when Cruz stepped to the plate with a runner on first. The 1-0 sinker from Elvis Peguero stayed over the heart of the plate, and Cruz’s bat didn’t miss a stitch on it.

The designated hitter has been looking for the spark at the plate. In 25 games, he was batting .147 with only two extra-base hits. Even with the significance of his home run, Cruz was nonchalant about his approach at the plate.

“Nothing different [about it],” Cruz said. “The pitch was the right one and I put the right swing on it.”

Martinez, on the other hand, had high praise for the newest veteran in the clubhouse.

“He's had a tremendous career and it's not over,” Martinez said. “He's gonna hit a lot more. I'm sure of that. I love having him around here, whether he's hitting or not; what he does for our clubhouse is really amazing and guys love him.”