After three straight losses to open the season, Nelson Cruz stood up in the Washington Nationals clubhouse Saturday night and told his new teammates that 0-3 would not define their season.
“I’ve been on teams before where we started 0-3,” the highly respected slugger said. “It doesn’t make our season.”
Zero and four, though — that might be a different story.
A team goes 0-4 to start a season, especially against a division rival you’re going to have to chase for the remaining 158 games, they could find themselves wondering what happened to 2022 before they even went on the first road trip.
They could have been looking for that season in that new locker they set aside in the clubhouse this year that says, “Lost and Found.”
The Nationals season was on the verge of disappearing into that locker, perhaps never to be found. Cruz made sure that didn’t happen Sunday.
The veteran delivered a game-winning two-run single in the bottom of the eighth at Nationals Park, giving Washington a face-saving 4-2 win over the New York Mets and allowing the Nationals to dodge a season-opening sweep by their division rivals.
The season may yet slip away, perhaps sometime soon. After all, the power and glory quotient when you walk into that Nationals clubhouse now is much dimmer than it has been in the past decade.
But it didn’t slip away Sunday. Not yet. Not yet.
What the Nationals did show was the kind of emotion and execution you see in those teams that beat the odds.
They were behind 2-1 for much of the game, managing just two hits through seven innings — including a solo home run by Cruz, the 450th of his career — but kept the game close with a start by Erick Fedde that kept them in the game for five innings and then outstanding bullpen work, holding the Mets scoreless through four innings.
The relieving quartet of Steve Cishek, Sean Doolittle, Kyle Finnegan and Tanner Rainey gave up just two hits and two walks over those four innings, while striking out four.
Two of those strikeouts came from Doolittle in the top of the seventh.
The former National who made his return to the team this season turned the clock back to his 2019 World Series season magic.
He came into the game in the top of the seventh inning with two Mets on base and nobody out. Doolittle proceeded to strike out leadoff batter Brandon Nimmo, then got Francisco Lindor, who homered in the third inning, to fly out to center, and finished the Mets off with a dramatic strikeout of Robinson Cano on 95 mph fastballs.
“I think he fired up the boys a little bit,” manager Davey Martinez said of Doolittle’s impressive seventh inning show.
“I told him he won the game for us when we came into the clubhouse,” Fedde said of Doolittle.
It certainly set the stage for the eighth inning that changed the game. Yadiel Hernández singled leading off against Chasen Shreve, and Maikel Franco singled up the middle, sending pinch-runner Dee Strange-Gordon to third against Trevor Williams.
Rookie shortstop Lucius Fox, making his first major league appearance, penciled in as the starter, dragged a safety squeeze sacrifice bunt, and Strange-Gordon slid home headfirst ahead of first baseman Pete Alonso’s throw.
Victor Robles bunted out back to the pitcher and Cesar Hernandez grounded to Alonso, whose throw to second for a force took Cano off the bag.
Juan Soto grounded to Alonso, who threw home for a force out. Then came Cruz’s single up the middle to drive in Fox and Hernandez for the 4-2 lead, the win, and, as Fedde described it, “relief.
“You don’t want to get swept out in the first home series,” he said.
The victory sent the Mets fans who were a large part of the crowd of 23,158 home disappointed.
But the reality is their team came in and manhandled Washington, winning the first three games of the series on Thursday, Friday and Saturday by a combined score of 17-4.
It doesn’t get easier for the Nationals, who now travel to Atlanta for a three-game series with the defending World Series champions.
Who knows what this ballpark will be like when they return to face the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday, April 18?
But for right now, 0-3 does not define the Washington Nationals season. It seemed important to accomplish that on Sunday.
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• Thom Loverro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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