The Washington Nationals’ Aníbal Sánchez would be facing his former team for the first time. He had pitched for them from 2012 through 2017, including three trips to the postseason. Since then, though, the Tigers hadn’t had a winning season. They were currently 26-51, fourth in the AL Central Division, 24½ games behind the Twins. They had won only four games in June.
This weekend, however, the fans could enjoy a celebration of the 35th anniversary of the 1984 Tigers’ World Series win. Many players were back for the celebration. In-game interviews on the Tigers TV broadcast included Darrell Evans, Willie Hernandez, and Lance Parrish. Jack Morris didn’t have far to go: He was broadcasting for the Tigers.
The visiting Washington Nationals were improving from their poor start. They had won 21 of their last 30 games after falling to 19-31 on May 23. They came to Detroit at .500 for the first time since an 11-11 mark on April 23. Still, they were in third in the NL East Division, seven games back of Atlanta.
With Ryan Zimmerman coming off the injured list for this game, the Nationals’ original 2019 lineup was finally on the field.1 An AL park was a perfect place to ease Zimmerman back into the game, since he could DH (good for a player coming off a foot injury). They were at a potential disadvantage in this game, though. Not only did they get in at 4 A.M. after a series in Miami, rain kept them from taking batting and fielding practice on this unfamiliar field.
Daniel Norris (2-6. 4.69 ERA) was making his first career start against the Nationals. He started the game by striking out Trea Turner. On the first swing, Turner’s bat went flying into the netting and dropped into the Tigers dugout. Adam Eaton hit a grounder to first; Norris collided with Eaton as they went over the bag and barely won the footrace for the second out. Manager Ron Gardenhire and trainers came out to check on Norris, but he was fine. Anthony Rendon grounded out to second to end the inning.
When Sánchez (3-6, 4.02 ERA) threw his first pitch of the first to Victor Reyes, the 35-year-old veteran of 14 major-league seasons had officially faced all 30 major-league teams.2 Reyes flied out, but Nick Castellanos singled on the first pitch and Miguel “Miggy” Cabrera walked. Christin Stewart flied out to center, too shallow for the runners to advance. Brandon Dixon popped up for the third out.
Juan Soto got the Nationals on the board in the top of the second with a homer off the front of the Pepsi Porch, the second deck in right. According to the Nationals TV broadcasters, it was the second home run hit that far in the 19 years the park had been open.3 Zimmerman, coming back after missing 55 games with plantar fasciitis, legged out an infield single. He was stranded when Kurt Suzuki flied out and Brian Dozier lined out.
Jeimer Candelario started the home half of the second with a double into the right-field corner. He didn’t advance on Niko Goodrum’s groundout but did reach third on Harold Castro’s grounder. Catcher Bobby Wilson4 looked at strike three to end the scoring opportunity.
Norris needed only seven pitches to dispose of the Nationals in the third. In the bottom of the inning, Miggy hit a two-out single to left. Stewart grounded to Turner, who couldn’t get a grip on the ball — perhaps affected by his not-yet-healed finger,5 perhaps not playing the ball well due to lack of infield practice before the game. Either way, Turner was charged with his eighth error of the year in 42 games played.6 But Sanchez struck out Dixon to keep the Tigers scoreless.
With two outs in the top of the fourth, Howie Kendrick hit a ball near the 420-foot mark on the outfield wall, but it didn’t rebound toward the infield. Instead, it slid down the wall to the warning track, giving him an easy double. Zimmerman walked, missing his chance for the 1,000th RBI of his career.7 Suzuki flied out to leave them both on base.
After two strikeouts and a groundout, Sánchez was back in the dugout on only 11 pitches in the home half of the fourth.
The Nationals added to their lead in the fifth. Victor Robles hit a one-out single up the middle. He stole second, despite Norris throwing over several times, and advanced to third on Turner’s broken-bat groundout. Eaton’s line-drive single over the second baseman drove in Robles. Rendon was out on a grounder to second, but the Nationals led, 2-0.
The Tigers got on the board in their half of the fifth. With two out, Castellanos homered to the deepest part of center field. Statcast gave the distance at 436 feet, compared to 418 feet for Soto’s second-inning homer off the second deck in right. Miggy golfed a low pitch into center for a single, but Stewart’s groundout ended the inning with the score, 2-1, Nationals.
Norris — at only 77 pitches — had to leave the game in the top of the sixth with a with an open cut on the top of his thumb, which had been bothering him since the second inning. He pleaded his case to continue, but a pitcher who would bleed on the ball isn’t allowed — it’s still a “foreign substance.”8 Buck Farmer pitched an effective top of the sixth in relief, allowing no baserunners.
All Sánchez allowed in his sixth and final inning of work was a single and a stolen base by Candelario. When he struck out Castro to end the inning, he smacked his glove in satisfaction. He had thrown more pitches (110) than in any of his other games in 2019, lowered his ERA below 4.00, and was in line for his fourth win in a row since his return from the injured list.
All Victor Alcántara allowed in the top of the seventh was a single to Dozier. Javy Guerra managed a one-two-three inning in the bottom of the frame with some help from his defense. Dozier caught Wilson’s popup to short right as he jumped over Kendrick, who had rolled up on the ground to avoid being stepped on. Reyes hit one toward right center, but Eaton made a running catch for the out while sliding across the outfield grass on his backside. Castellanos grounded uneventfully to Turner.
Daniel Stumpf relieved for the Tigers to start the eighth. Despite a mid-at-bat visit from pitching coach Rick Anderson, he managed to throw only two strikes in 13 pitches. Not surprisingly, he walked two of the three batters he faced. He did get some help from his center fielder, Reyes, who threw out Eaton at second trying to tag up on Rendon’s fly out. That double play brought the biggest cheer of the night from the crowd. The defense behind the next pitcher, José Cisnero,9 was not as good. After Stumpf walked Soto, Kendrick doubled to right off Cisnero. The cutoff men were lined up for a relay to the plate, but Castellanos threw the ball toward second — where no one was covering. Soto scored standing. Cisnero struck out Zimmerman, but the Nationals now led, 3-1.
Tanner Rainey was the first Nationals pitcher to keep Miggy Cabrera off base. After grounding out to lead off the bottom of the eighth, Miggy walked back to the dugout holding a stub: Most of the bat was in front of the pitcher’s mound. Rainey walked the next two batters, prompting a visit from pitching coach Paul Menhart. Candelario grounded toward right, Kendrick knocked the ball down, and Dozier grabbed it on the infield dirt, but Rainey hadn’t made it to first yet as he’d slipped a bit getting off the mound. So Dozier threw to second, nipping the runner on a force play. Detroit challenged, but the call was upheld, to the audible dismay of the crowd. (The replay on the video board looked as if he might have been safe.) Goodrum struck out to end the inning, leaving the Tigers 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
Austin Adams, the sixth Tigers pitcher of the game, needed only 10 pitches for three outs in the top of the ninth.
The Nationals called on Fernando Rodney, who broke in with the Tigers in 2002, to close the game. The Nationals had signed him earlier in June to shore up their bullpen. Rodney was 42, but he was still throwing 96. Sean Doolittle, the overworked10 Nationals closer, and other Nationals relievers were smiling from the bullpen as Rodney took the mound. Rodney struck out Castro and pinch-hitter JaCoby Jones. When Reyes bounced to short to end the game, Rodney “shot his arrow” from behind the mound, celebrating his first Nationals save with his trademark gesture.11 With this save,12 he matched the major-league record, shared with Octavio Dotel13 and Rich “Goose” Gossage,14 of recording saves for nine teams.
The win put the Nationals above .500 for the first time since April 18, on their way to the National League pennant and their World Series win. As for the Tigers, they did win the next game to end their eight-game losing streak but ended the season with the worst record in the majors at 47-114.
My personal observation, having watched the 2019 Nationals season, is that Turner lost his bat more than any other player. I assume it was due to his injured fingers, since he had only eight that could grip the bat (see Note 5).
In addition to Baseball Reference, Retrosheet, and the sources cited in the Notes, the author reviewed the broadcasts on mlb.com.
1 Yan Gomes (who caught the Nationals’ first game of the year) platooned with Suzuki through the season, depending on pitcher preference and each catcher’s health. Suzuki had caught Sánchez in Atlanta in 2016, so he was frequently paired with Sánchez.
2 This was Sánchez’s 324th career game. He had earned his 100th win in his previous game on June 16.
3 418 feet per Statcast. They got the information regarding the homer from the home broadcasters in the next booth.
4 The 36-year-old Wilson (.118 BA) was approaching the end of his 10-year major-league career. He had been added to the roster on June 14 when starting catcher Grayson Greiner was placed on the injured list.
5 Turner had surgery after the 2019 season. He had been gripping the bat with eight fingers after his return from the injured list in May. talknats.com/2019/11/19/trea-turner-surgery-fingers-one-2019s-miracles/.
6 In 2018 he had six errors through 42 games; in 2017, only three.
7 It worked out okay, though: He got his 1,000th RBI in his home park on July 5.
8 He was able to make his next start as usual on four days’ rest.
9 Cisnero was a story of real baseball perseverance. He signed with the Astros in 2007; was released by them in 2014 after two years on the roster; had Tommy John surgery; was released by the Diamondbacks, the Sultanes de Monterrey, and the New Jersey Jackals in 2016; and made it back to the majors on June 22, 2019. He stayed on their roster through at least the 2020 season.
10 Doolittle had appeared in 35 of the Nationals’ previous 80 games. The two pitchers who were supposed to share closing duties with him in 2019 did not work out. (Kyle Barraclough was on the injured list with a 6.39 ERA, Trevor Rosenthal had been released on June 23 with a 22.74 ERA.)
11 Rodney mimed shooting an arrow to celebrate each save. David Lumia, “The Fkinny on Fernando Rodney: The Cap, the Arrow, the Numbers and More,” foxsports.com, December 14, 2016. foxsports.com/arizona/story/introducing-fernando-rodney-cap-arrow-numbers-120716. Retrieved November 21, 2020.
12 The nine teams and the year of his first save for the team: Tigers 2003, Angels 2010, Rays 2012, Mariners 2014, Padres 2016, Marlins 2016, Diamondbacks 2017, Twins 2018, Nationals 2019. He also played for the Cubs and the A’s but did not record a save for those teams (although he had two chances with Oakland and blew both of them, and blew one save for the Cubs).
13 Dotel’s nine teams and the year of his first save for the team: Astros 2000, A’s 2004, Royals 2007, White Sox 2008, Pirates 2010, Dodgers 2010, Blue Jays 2011, Cardinals 2011, Tigers 2013.
14 Gossage’s nine teams and the year of his first save for the team: White Sox 1972, Pirates 1977, Yankees 1978, Padres 1984, Cubs 1988, Giants 1989, Rangers 1991, A’s 1993, Mariners 1994.