Target Field didn’t open until 2010.
The three-game set was the first matchup with the current AL Central-leader since April 22-24 in 2016 in Nationals Park, so Davey Martinez’s squad had some work to do to get familiar with the ballpark and the opposing team heading into the series.
“We had some guys come out early, especially the outfielders, and take some fly balls and balls off the wall and play that little thing in right field,” Martinez told reporters before the series opener.
“It’s different,” he said. “It’s a beautiful ballpark, I told them all, ‘Hey, it’s a great ballpark, a lot of energy here.’ So they’re excited to be here.”
Aníbal Sánchez, the Nationals’ 35-year-old, 14-year veteran, had faced eleven players on the Twins’ roster, but only five of the 11 were in the lineup for the series opener.
Martinez provided a scouting report of sorts before the game.
“They’ve got a core of guys, especially young guys, that are electric and they put the ball in play,” the second-year skipper said, “... and they’ve got a lot of power, so we can’t come in here and take these guys lightly. They’re really good. I watched a lot of video the last couple days, they’re going to bring it and they’re going to play hard, so we’ve got to be prepared and be ready to play hard and play winning baseball.”
When it comes to their power, the Twins started the night with the most home runs in the majors (275 as a team), and MLB’s highest SLG (.496), with two players over 30 home runs in 2019, Max Kepler (36) and Nelson Cruz (35), and three more creeping up on 30 - Mitch Garver (29), Eddie Rosario (28), and Miguel Sanó (27), and they had the second-most runs scored (833) in the big leagues heading into the game.
Coming off a tough series with the NL East-leading Braves in Atlanta, which saw Martinez’s squad lose three of four in SunTrust Park, the Nats were facing a Twins club that was 6-4 in their last 10, 11-4 in their last 15, and 13-7 in their last 20 games, with Twins’ first-year skipper Rocco Baldelli’s team up 5.0 games in their division, which didn’t surprise Martinez, who served as the Rays’ bench coach when Baldelli was with Tampa Bay on the field and in the front office.
“He’s got a good team,” Martinez said. “When you look at everything, he’s got a good bunch of veteran guys, a good core of young kids, pitching has been good, and Rocco is just unbelievable, he really is. He gets it. I’ve had him as a player, and then after he retired, he became a front office guy for us and we talked a lot and he’s a good baseball man, knows what’s going on, knows how to treat players, and knows how to deal with people and that’s part of it.”
With outfielder Byron Buxton out for the season after injuring his shoulder, and right-hander Michael Pineda suspended for 60 games after testing positive for a banned substance that’s included in the Joint Drug Agreement between MLB and the MLBPA, the Twins were in need of a boost, and they got one from starter José Berríos, who tossed seven scoreless innings, giving up just two hits and walk, and Garver, who hits his 30th HR in what ended up being a 5-0 win.
Nationals’ starter Aníbal Sánchez matched Berríos through six innings, but gave up a leadoff double and the two-run homer by Garver in the first two at bats of the Twins’ half of the seventh, 2-0, and the home team put up another three runs on reliever Tanner Rainey in the eighth.
Did a lack of familiarity with Berríos play a role in the Nationals’ struggles?
“It could,” Martinez said, “but — we get so much information on guys, but it’s still — you get all the information you want, when you’re on, you’re on and you’ve got to go up there and you’ve got to battle, and like I said, he was good. He was good tonight. We didn’t get very many pitches to hit. When we did — when it seemed like we did, we hit the ball hard, just couldn’t get nothing going.”
Martinez’s squad struggled against the first three Braves’ starters this past weekend, and they had trouble at the plate again in the opener with the Twins.
“The last game in Atlanta we hit the ball well,” he said, “and I truly believe when you face a guy like [Berríos] tonight, who — he really commanded the strike zone, but his changeup was good, his slider was good, you have to stay in the middle of the field, I mean really. He was pounding the strike zone, he got ahead, when we thought we had him, his offspeed was really good. He threw some really good changeups and sliders when he needed to, but for me when you face guys like that, you look — Howie [Kendrick] and Anthony [Rendon], who hit the ball hard, they both — Anthony middle of the field, [Asdrúbal] Cabrera, middle of the field, Howie goes to right field, but you’ve got to stay on the ball, you’ve got to stay on the ball.”
They couldn’t get anything going against the Twins’ starter, and didn’t get anything off of relievers Sergio Romo or Trevor May either, and the Nationals dropped their sixth in the last ten, and saw their lead over the Chicago Cubs in the NL Wild Card race for the top Wild Card spot fall to +2.0 games, while their lead over the third team in the Wild Card race (Milwaukee) fell to 3.5.