SAN FRANCISCO -– The Washington Nationals carry a smoke machine and flashing lights with them on the road. After postgame victories, they turn the visiting clubhouse into a bass thumping underground scene.
If they charged a cover, they’d be having quite the profitable week here at AT&T Park.
Matt Cain couldn’t find the strike zone in the first inning, and the Nationals proved yet again why even the NL’s best comeback team shouldn’t make a habit of trying to rally against them. Ryan Zimmerman, playing 90 feet deeper than his usual spot at third base, made two rally-snuffing catches in left field and the Nationals beat the Giants 6-2 Wednesday night to position themselves for a shot at a four-game sweep.
The Nats are unleashing the smoke monster –- and doing to the Giants exactly what the Giants just spent two months doing to everyone else.
“Well yeah, very similar,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “When a good team gets on a roll, they’re pitching well, getting the timely hits, the two-out hits, and the ball gets through. You’ll hit a bump in the road. What’s important is how you deal with it.”
Maybe the Giants can start by reminding themselves that they still have baseball’s best record.
The Nats are climbing, though, after winning 10 of their last 12. The Giants entered this series 27-1 when outhitting an opponent. Yet they’ve outhit the Nats twice while losing all three games thus far.
The difference? The Giants haven’t parked one. It’s the first time they’ve been held without a homer in three consecutive games since April 15-17. If there was one area where they could be accused of playing over their heads, it was the pace at which they were hitting home runs. They’ll have to prove resourceful when they aren’t hitting it out of the park, which is more likely to be the case against top pitching staffs like the Nationals, or on these foggy midsummer nights.
Cain, who walked the first three batters in a three-run first inning, was commenting on the Nationals’ stout staff as much as his own failures when he said, “I put our guys behind the 8-ball. It was too much of a deficit to come back from.
What was the issue?
“You know, I was missing off the plate just enough,” he said. “I couldn’t get it back over the plate for some reason. I was a few inches off, and then I missed badly on a few.
“We needed a better start than that. We had a rough one the other day and I wanted to give them some clean innings to get these guys going offensively. I just made it a little too difficult. I really wasn’t that off. I wasn’t all over the place. I just wasn’t able to find the strike zone.”
Walking the bases loaded is like standing in your front lawn in your best suit. Sooner or later, the sprinklers are going to go off. Cain’s slider to Adam LaRoche was a good pitch intended to get a double-play grounder, but his roller found a seam up the middle for a two-run single.
Cain issued a fourth walk in the inning before escaping.
“I've never seen that from Matt,” said Nationals manager Matt Williams, who spent several years on Arizona’s coaching staff. “I've faced him a lot. I've stood in that coaching box over there a lot. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, he's pinpoint with his control. The guys were patient and didn't expand their strike zone. We were able to get him early.”
Said Bochy: “He threw very well his last game. He had some of his best stuff and best command last time. I was hoping he’d carry that into this one. He had the stuff but he was a little off. That first inning is when a pitcher is trying to get his rhythm.”
The Nats made it 4-1 in the fifth when Jayson Werth hit the first homer by either club in the series, on a hanging slider. The final two runs came against Yusmeiro Petit in the ninth, when plate umpire Phil Cuzzi’s tight strike zone had the Giants bullpen barking and the crowd spilling onto the streets.
Prior to that, the Giants flirted with rallies but the Nationals sent back all the free drinks. Zimmerman left his feet to make two surprising catches. Second baseman Danny Espinoza ranged to take an RBI single away from Gregor Blanco, too.
What really hurt was Pablo Sandoval’s late scratch from the lineup because of a respiratory illness. Sandoval hit a pinch RBI single in the seventh, but it came one batter after Joaquin Arias –- the .176-hitting replacement at third base –- grounded into a double play on a pitch right down the middle.
Bochy said he was hopeful to have Sandoval back in the lineup Thursday.
“He turned for the worse,” Bochy said. “He’s on antibiotics and they’re not helping at all. My hope is that tomorrow he’ll feel better.”
Maybe he can try a humidifier. That’s bound to help more than a smoke machine, anyway.