Nationals bash three homers to back Josiah Gray in win over Angels

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ANAHEIM, Calif. – On Saturday afternoon, a few hours before the Washington Nationals faced the Los Angeles Angels, Darnell Coles attended the visitors’ dugout and made a prediction.

“We can’t hit the ball in the ground forever,” said Coles, the Nationals’ first-year hitting coach and the intense positivity of a man. “If there’s one thing I know, I know that. It will level out here soon. “

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Right then, the Nationals had the highest groundball rate among the league’s 30 teams. They also had the fifth-highest contact percentage, meaning they were good at hitting baseballs, just not hitting them in the air. Then homers from Josh Bell, Yadiel Hernandez and Nelson Cruz helped Washington to a 7-3 win over the Angels, with a three-game series ahead of Sunday’s finale here.

Coles, it should be noted, was probably feeling lucky. When players and coaches chose their horses for the Kentucky Derby on Friday, the odds for Rich Strike to win were 99 to 1, worst in the field. And when Coles picked up his baseball from the pile, Rich Strike’s number – 21 – was written on it in Sharpie. He told manager Dave Martinez there was no way. With that prediction, he was wrong.

But Cole didn’t watch most of the team’s traveling party. That ‘s why, when the long-shot winner flashed on the screen, there was silence and a lot of looking around.

“Uh, DC took it?” asked Josh Rogers, who grew up near Louisville and was locked on the race.

“Yeah, but I don’t think he is here,” replied Erick Fedde.

“Let’s not tell him his horse won,” said a staffer, and everybody laughed.

Soon, though, Coles was smiling through the recollection of picking Rich Strike. And soon after that, he was just so sure the offense could course correct.

In support of starter Josiah Gray – who silenced the Angels outside a messy fourth, logging 5⅓ innings on 83 pitches – Bell, Hernandez, Cruz and Maikel Franco answered Coles’ call. Bell was first, driving Michael Lorenzen’s outside cutter into the fake rocks beyond the left-field wall. Next came Hernandez, who roped his solo shot to the right-center in the second, using a cutter on the inner half. Cruz, one of the main contributors to that sky-high groundball rate, then lined Elvis Peguero’s sinker over the short wall.

“Two things for me that came out: We got the ball up and we were on the whole game all the time,” Martinez said. “We do those two things, we’re going to put the ball in play and we’re going to hit the ball hard. “

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Franco didn’t hit homer, though he did deliver on a two-run single in the fourth and an RBI double in the sixth. That gave him 16 RBI this year. Bell, still the club’s most productive hitter, added a walk and a single to his on-base-plus slugging percentage to .998. Hernandez’s jumped to .957 with his homer and a walk. Cruz didn’t pad the lead when a sacrifice fly was needed against former Nationals reliever Kyle Barraclough in the sixth. Instead, he went down swinging for one of his four strikeouts, making it his third homer of the season just inched his OPS to .472.

None of this means the Nationals (10-19) have cured their inability to elevate contact. That doesn’t happen in one game. But it did show, in a very small sample, their ability to get there.

What was good about Gray’s sixth outing of the year? Through three innings, keeping his pitch count to 35 with four at-bats that lasted one or two pitches. Retiring Shohei Ohtani on three flyouts with seven total pitches (the third of which stranded a leadoff base runner in the fifth). A batter before that, striking out Mike Trout on a slider and pumping his fist.

The quick-passing bad? Letting damage expand with a walk between two homers in the fifth. For the Angels’ second hit, Jared Walsh beat Gray on a 1-0 fastball for a solo shot. After Max Stassi walked, Brandon Marsh crushed a 2-1 fastball 429 feet and scored them both. Gray is a flyball pitcher, and yielding homers as a result of that style is one thing. But frequent slips of command, however momentary, have been an unwanted theme of his first full season in the majors. This was a step forward because he shrank the lapse.

“He was able to get back in the strike zone, got a big out and then came out the next inning and shut them down pretty good,” Martinez said. “Good day for him. Good day for us. “

Why did Martinez trust reliever Erasmo Ramírez with two innings? “He attacks the strike zone and knows how to pitch,” Martinez said of using a four-run lead to protect the 32-year-old journeyman. In the seventh, Trout and Ohtani each tagged Ramírez with a two-out single. He escaped the jam when Anthony Rendon flew out on a first-pitch cutter. Because of injuries, those singles kept as the only noise against him.

Before Ramírez entered, Cishek picked up Gray and recorded two outs. After him, Rainey set the Angels down in order, giving him eight appearances this season without allowing a run.

“We gave him an opportunity and he did great, he really did,” Martinez continued in his praise of Ramírez. “He’s a veteran guy. He understands how to pitch, just like Cishek. Cishek comes in and knows how to get outs. We felt comfortable with a four-run lead that [Ramírez] could maybe give us one-plus innings and he did that. “

And what did Ramírez think of that opportunity?“Being a reliever, you’re waiting for it,” he said. “Because you want to show the manager that you can execute pitches, get the game and keep it the way they give it to you. Today was a big moment … It was big for me. It was huge.”

Who is the Nationals’ emergency catcher? The question is topical because the Pittsburgh Pirates had an emergency catcher in the first leg of a doubleheader Saturday. So asked for his, Martinez quickly replied: “Dee… unless Yadi can do it.”

So from this weekend forward, Dee Strange-Gordon and Yadiel Hernandez will hopefully not have a third catcher. Told of this development pregame, Strange-Gordon lowered his shades, stared at this reporter for disbelief for about 10 seconds, then went to squat in the door frame of Martinez’s office. Strange-Gordon mimicked catching a pitch, pointed a finger at his chest and mouthed: “Me?” And when Martinez nodded, Strange-Gordon crumbled into a heap on the floor, arms and legs outstretched.

After starting at shortstop Saturday, Strange-Gordon has played short, center field, left, and pitched for Washington this season. In his career, he has also played second and even started as a designated hitter. But the 34-year-old says he has never been behind the home plate in his life.

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