Since Rick Ankiel returned from the purgatory that his pitching career had become and made his debut as an outfielder in August of 2007, he has hit 56 home runs. Prior to Monday night’s 5-3 Washington Nationals win over the Atlanta Braves, Ankiel had hit two home runs in a game on four occasions. Facing right-hander Jair Jurrjens, Ankiel took his career home run total to an even 60, hitting two solo shots into the right field seats as the Nats notched their third win in a row against a division opponent.
Ankiel’s first home run, a solo cannon shot into the right-center field seats to lead off the bottom of the first inning, was impressive enough. But it paled in comparison to his second homer, another solo job that was blasted into the second deck down the right field line. As anyone who makes a habit of watching games at Nationals Park can tell you, those seats aren’t reached cheaply.
The pitching match-up certainly didn’t favor the home side. Jurrjens, a 25-year-old from Curacao, had not lost a start since June 14, and is surely on the watch list for the National League Cy Young Award. By contrast, Livan Hernandez had not won a start since June 26, and hadn’t even made it past the 4th inning in two of his previous three appearances. In the first inning, the Cuban looked to be continuing his poor run of form. After giving up a lead-off single to Michael Bourn on the second pitch of the game, Martin Prado turned on a curveball that missed the left field foul pole by, at most, a foot. The next pitch was scalded to Ryan Zimmerman, who snagged the line drive on the back hand and threw to first in plenty of time to double off Bourn, who was left standing at second wondering how on earth the ball hadn’t gone for extra bases.
The themes of danger and escape recurred throughout Hernandez’s six-inning, six-hit, one-run outing. In the third, he gave up a one-out single to Jose Constanza, who was promptly thrown out trying to steal second by Wilson Ramos. In the next inning, Hernandez allowed back-to-back one-out singles by Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla before hitting Jason Heyward on the leg with a pitch to load the bases. The next batter, David Ross, grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
Hernandez helped his own cause considerably on two occasions. In the second inning, Hernandez gave his team a lead that they never relinquished when his two-out single to right field scored Jayson Werth to put Washington on top 2-1. But his most spectacular moment came in the fifth. After a lead-off single by Alex Gonzalez, Jurrjens (batting in the 8th spot) dropped a very well-placed bunt in front of the plate. Springing off the mound with alacrity, Hernandez spun and fired a bullet to the covering Desmond at second to start the 1-6-3 twin killing, the third double play turned by the Nats on the evening.
The only mistake Hernandez made was in the second inning, when he left a sinking fastball up in the zone for Uggla to catapult into the right-center field bleachers to tie the game 1-1. But even in this, Hernandez could commiserate with closer Drew Storen, who gave up Uggla’s second home run of the night with one out in the ninth inning. That made the score 5-3, and when Heyward followed with a single to right, nerves were jangling in the crowd of 19,940. But Storen managed to blow a full-count fastball by Ross and induce Gonzalez to ground into a 5-4 force-out to end the game.