Nats notch wacky road win in home ballpark

July 30th, 2020

WASHINGTON -- It was a game of firsts that could have thrown the Nationals off course -- first time playing as a road team in their own ballpark and first time implementing the automatic runner rule in extra innings. Instead, they embraced the uniqueness and pulled through with a 4-0 victory over the Blue Jays in 10 innings on Wednesday night.

The Nats took on the role of visitor at Nationals Park for what is considered the Blue Jays’ opening homestand of the year. The automated crowd noise cheered for Toronto and was subdued for Washington, while the teams battled through a scoreless nine innings behind a spectacle from ace Max Scherzer and the big league debut of Toronto's top prospect Nate Pearson.

The Nationals began mulling their automatic runner strategy in the seventh inning. They decided to use pinch-runner Emilio Bonifácio to replace Starlin Castro as the runner at second base to begin extras. Carter Kieboom and Andrew Stevenson started the frame by drawing back-to-back walks from Blue Jays reliever Shun Yamaguchi to load the bases.

“They were great at-bats, great at-bats,” manager Dave Martinez said. “I didn’t want to bunt. We’re playing on the road. I wanted these guys to swing the bat. But they worked two great at-bats to get on base. That’s a testament to just teamwork and getting on for the next guy.”

Yamaguchi fanned Victor Robles and Trea Turner to set up a two-out showdown with Adam Eaton, who hit a ball up the middle that was deflected by Yamaguchi. Though it was fielded by second baseman Cavan Biggio, Stevenson slid into second safely ahead of Biggio's sprawling tag attempt -- and the call held up after a replay review. Asdrúbal Cabrera followed with a bases-clearing triple to extend the lead to four.

"Typically, I kind of only have one gear when it's running, and it's kind of wide open,” Stevenson said. “But I saw kind of their alignment, so I knew once it hit off the pitcher's foot that there was a chance that might be their only play. Just lucky to beat him, and we got the win out of it."

With keen at-bats and aggressive but smart baserunning, the Nationals worked the new automatic runner rule in their favor. They held the Blue Jays scoreless in the bottom of the frame.

“It kind of brought back the typical National League kind of baseball without the DH,” Martinez said. “But it was fun. I’m still a fan of just playing the game the way it’s been played for many years, but today it felt good because we were able to win. Hopefully tomorrow, we win in regulation.”

Despite going scoreless through nine, the Nationals were put in the position to have an opportunity for late-game heroics because of Scherzer’s dominance. He struck out 10 batters for the 95th time in his 14-year Major League career. He’s making a habit of it, too, having reached that mark in both starts this season.

Scherzer gave up three hits and three walks over 7 1/3 scoreless frames; 70 of his 112 pitches went for strikes. Among his 10 punchouts, Scherzer fanned Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. -- 10 years and eight days after striking out Guerrero's Hall of Fame father on July 21, 2010.

Scherzer also surpassed the 2,300-inning mark for his career during the outing. His 29.1 strikeout percentage is the highest in Major League history among any pitcher with that many innings to his name. Randy Johnson (28.6), Pedro Martinez (27.7), Nolan Ryan (25.3) and Sandy Koufax (25.2) round out the top 5 among pitchers with at least 2,300 innings pitched.

“There was no room for any errors,” Scherzer said. “Just happy to get out of here unscathed, and then for our team to be able to get a win. We needed this win. We needed to start getting some mojo going. It's good to see the offense, even if it took until the 10th inning, the offense got going. Sometimes hitting can be contagious, and hopefully that rolls into tomorrow.”