- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2020

If there was a day that highlighted the challenges of playing baseball in the middle of a pandemic, it was Monday.

When Anibal Sanchez took the mound for the Washington Nationals in the evening, debate raged on whether the season should be allowed to continue after an outbreak of coronavirus cases on the Miami Marlins caused the league to postpone two games. Commissioner Rob Manfred said in an interview with MLB Network that the league would forge on, but it was another reminder of how much is unknown about the months ahead.

Through it all, the Nationals still had a game to play — one they lost 4-1 to the Toronto Blue Jays at Nationals Park.

The Nationals registered 11 hits, but mustered only one run. Sanchez, normally a dependable fourth starter, gave up four home runs — solo shots, though costly all the same. As a result, Washington fell to 1-3, a start that further stands out in a shortened 60-game season.

“Right now, everything is a new normal,” Sanchez said. “Every day is different. You’re gonna wake up one day and get big news, and another day everything is going to be normal, the new normal. … I don’t think (the Marlins’ outbreak) was on my mind during the game. Whatever happened in the game, it happened.”

Earlier in the morning, seven Miami players and two coaches tested positive for the virus — bringing the club’s total number of cases to 13. MLB postponed two games as a result: the Marlins’ home opener against the Baltimore Orioles, and the Philadelphia Phillies’ matchup against the New York Yankees. (The Phillies’ hosted the Marlins over the weekend).

The outbreak leaves the league with a crisis, raising questions like whether the season should be shut down. Before Monday’s loss, manager Dave Martinez’s usual optimism was replaced with a somber tone as he discussed the severity of the situation. He had friends with the Marlins, he said, and the positive results led him to admit his level of concern was raised from an “8 to a 12.”

Martinez was asked about his own fears of catching the virus, especially given his heart condition, which sidelined him for a portion of last season.

“I’m going to be honest with you, I’m scared,” Martinez said. “I really am. So I go from here, home, back here every day. That’s all I do. I wash my hands. I went from 47 times a day to probably 99 times a day. Wear my mask everywhere I go. There’s that concern. Right now, you don’t know, because of my heart condition, what happens to me if I do get it?

“I’ve got to be extra careful.”

But there was a job to do, transactions to be made. Hours prior to the first pitch, the Nationals announced the signing of utility man Josh Harrison, a two-time All-Star who battled injuries last season and was released from the Phillies last week. Harrison said he was eager to join Washington, spurring another team who had expressed interest because the Nationals offered him a major-league contract. And to make room for the 33-year-old, Washington optioned catcher Raudy Read to their alternate training site in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Once the game started, it didn’t take long for Sanchez and the Nationals to give up the lead.

On just his second pitch, Sanchez threw an 88 mile-per-hour cutter that Blue Jays outfielder Teoscar Hernandez sent deep into center-right field. With no fans in the seats, the ball bounced off the tarp-covered seats and down the steps of the row. Just like that, the Nationals were down.

It was the start of another rough outing for the Nationals, who in four games have committed their share of errors, bone-headed mistakes and generally lacked the attention to detail that made them World Series champions last year.

Sanchez was the main culprit, giving up a series of solo shots over the first five innings, including a second homer to Hernandez. He was pulled before the sixth, throwing 88 pitches in his first start of the year. Of those 88, only 56 were for strikes. After the game, Martinez said Sanchez left the ball too high, too often on his home runs.

There were other lapses that led to Washington’s downfall, too. The Nationals left the bases loaded in the second, when left fielder Michael A. Taylor struck out and shortstop Trea Turner flew out to center in back-to-back plate appearances. In general, leaving men on base was a major problem as the Nationals stranded 10. Washington’s offense also had four double plays, two ground outs and two lineouts.

Washington’s lone run was in the fourth on a Kurt Suzuki RBI double.

“We hit the ball good, which is good to see,” Martinez said. “It was just one of those days. We just weren’t lucky and didn’t get that big hit we needed.”

Last year, the two likely candidates to produce that timely hit would have been Anthony Rendon or Juan Soto. Rendon is now with the Los Angeles Angels, while Soto is on the COVID-19 injured list.

Call it another challenge in a challenging season.

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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