MINNEAPOLIS — There Asdrúbal Cabrera was again, digging his feet through the rain-slicked dirt at Target Field, daring his manager to sit him and see who can match what he’s doing at the plate.
He was, in action, legging out his first triple of the season. He was, in a word, producing. It’s become a habit of Cabrera’s since he joined the Washington Nationals on a tryout of a contract in early August. And Thursday night, in a 12-6 win over the Minnesota Twins at Target Field, he helped the offense build a lead to withstand a near collapse from the bullpen.
The 33-year-old knocked an RBI single in the third. He added that RBI triple in the fifth, with two outs and a rally sagging, then scored two pitches later on a passed ball. He started at second base, moved to first when Matt Adams exited in the fourth, and continued to prove he should be a fixture of Manager Dave Martinez’s lineup.
[ Box score: Nationals 12, Twins 6 ]
Cabrera has appeared in 24 contests for the Nationals since he was designated for assignment by the Texas Rangers. He has 29 RBI in that span and the most recent two came in the team’s outburst against the Twins. Anthony Rendon, Adam Eaton, Juan Soto and Yan Gomes crushed home runs. Rendon finished with two hits and three RBI. Starter Patrick Corbin gutted out six innings, especially after sitting through a 50-minute rain delay, and that all helped Washington stay 3½ games ahead of the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers for the National League’s top wild-card spot.
Those standings are now crammed with teams heading into the weekend. The Nationals have a decent lead with 17 games left, but the Brewers, Cubs and New York Mets have applied pressure. The Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks are hanging around, too. By winning this series in Minneapolis, against the first-place Twins no less, Washington can take some rhythm into upcoming matchups with the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals. Those clubs are tearing through September. That only added importance to leaving here on top.
Rendon gave the Nationals an early lead with a solo shot in the first. He lifted it out to left, off an inside fastball from Twins starter Kyle Gibson, and that gave him 33 home runs on the season. But the slight advantage didn’t last long. Corbin gave up a one-out double to Luis Arraez in the bottom half and, one batter later, Eddie Rosario knocked Arraez in with a single.
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Any ball that touched the field became slick. Corbin often paused between pitches to rub the leather dry. The conditions weren’t ideal for anyone involved, but were even tougher for the guys trying to throw right into their catchers’ mitts. Gibson slipped in the third, loading the bases with no outs, and the Nationals nudged ahead when Soto bounced into a fielder’s choice. Cabrera added another run with a single to center. Nelson Cruz soon cut into that lead by taking Corbin deep with a towering homer to center.
Then Cabrera helped stretch the deficit to one the Twins couldn’t overcome. His triple punctuated a three-run fifth and gave Corbin, and later the bullpen, a lot of breathing room. Even more came an inning later when Rendon cracked a two-run double and Soto added a two-run home run. The Nationals needed it all once Aaron Barrett gave up three runs in the eighth, the inning that’s given them so much trouble all season. But Fernando Rodney relieved Barrett, stranded the bases loaded with back-to-back strikeouts, and Javy Guerra soon finished off the Twins in the ninth.
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Cabrera had left the Rangers with 12 home runs and a sagging .213 batting average. He then quickly joined the Nationals as a depth infielder for the stretch run. When he did, during a series in San Francisco about a month back, Martinez laid out a limited role. He’d use Cabrera to spell Brian Dozier at second every so often. He’d have him learn first base, right away, due to lingering injures for Ryan Zimmerman and Adams. And beyond that, the switch-hitting Cabrera could maybe provide some pop off the bench.
But he’s sprinted past those expectations in the weeks since. Thursday was his 20th start for Washington — 18 at second, two at first — and Dozier’s opportunities have slimmed. Dozier was signed to a one-year deal in December to be the everyday second baseman. He’s struggled for most of the season, only breaking out with short bursts of power, and Cabrera is a logical option against right-handed pitchers. Howie Kendrick, who also plays first and second, crushes lefties and is having a standout season. That doesn’t leave many extra at-bats.
Still, Martinez has a daily puzzle on the right side of the infield. He has Ryan Zimmerman, Adams, Kendrick and Cabrera to cycle through first, and Dozier, Cabrera and Kendrick to fit in a second. It’s just becoming clear, with each passing game, that the Nationals are better off with Cabrera on the field. Every run he accounts for — the 29 he’s driven in, the 15 he’s scored himself — is just more evidence.
LINK ORIGINAL: Washington Post