SAN FRANCISCO — As Kurt Suzuki neared third base early Tuesday evening, his light trot bordering on a stroll, a baseball trickled along the outfield grass in his direction.
The fan who’d caught the ball beyond the left field fence, in a small sea of sweatshirts and hands, wanted nothing to do with it. So he threw the ball back, triggering a tired cheer from the Oracle Park crowd, forcing third baseman Evan Longoria to lean over and scoop it up. Suzuki had just crushed it, clear through the wind-whipped air, continuing his best offensive game of the season with a loud pop. The Washington Nationals went on to win, 5-3 over the San Francisco Giants, and Suzuki’s bat was the difference.
The 35-year-old catcher put the Nationals ahead with an RBI single in the first. He lengthened their lead with that two-run homer in the third, his 12th of the season, and finished with three hits while knocking in three runs. Aníbal Sánchez otherwise gave up two, one of them earned, in an efficient six innings. The bullpen was solid again, yielding a run in three innings, and now the Nationals will play for a sweep here Wednesday.
“It’s been good, I like the RBI totals,” Suzuki said of his season. “For me, production is key. Obviously batting average and all that stuff is great, but if you can drive in runs, or score runs, you help the team win.”
When General Manager Mike Rizzo signed Suzuki in November, to a two-year contract worth $10 million, he envisioned a significant offensive upgrade behind the plate. That plan was only solidified when he traded for Yan Gomes 12 days later. Last season, Matt Wieters, Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino combined for 12 home runs and 58 RBI in 627 plate appearances. Suzuki hit that many homers on his own in 388 plate appearances. Gomes was an all-star with the Cleveland Indians and one of the better hitting catchers in the American League.
But only one of them has fully clicked this season. Gomes has a .207 average and .327 slugging percentage, and only recently has he seen an uptick in production. Suzuki, on the other hand, is exceeding expectations.
His offense has been a constant while starting a little less than half of the Nationals’ games behind the plate. His third-inning homer already matched his 2018 total. He has 43 RBI, just seven fewer than last year in 51 fewer appearances, and 16 multi-hit games. He seems to always hit the ball hard — sometimes right at fielders, sometimes not — and that’s just a sliver of his value to this team.
Suzuki has become the regular receiver for Max Scherzer, the Nationals’ wounded ace, who had been on a career-best tear before injuring his shoulder in July. Scherzer’s ERA pitching to Suzuki is better than with any other catcher he has been paired with regularly in 12 seasons. Suzuki is also Sánchez’s full-time catcher, out there again with him Tuesday, picking through the Giants’ subpar order to keep Washington on track.
“Zuk and I, right now, we got a really good relationship,” Sánchez said of Suzuki, who caught him 16 times with the Atlanta Braves last season. And they had a lead to protect right away because Suzuki poked the third pitch he saw into right field. Anthony Rendon had walked with two outs in the first, Juan Soto singled him to third against Giants starter Conner Menez, and Suzuki knocked Rendon in with his first hit.
Then Sánchez cruised through two innings, Suzuki belted a low-and-in slider for that two-run homer, and their final, shared objective was to minimize the bullpen’s workload.The Giants got one off Sánchez in the third, after his throwing error helped them out, before trouble brewed in the sixth. The Nationals had a four-run cushion after Trea Turner ripped a solo shot, his 500th career hit, in the previous inning. But that progress was erased when Pablo Sandoval led off with a double, Brandon Belt singled him in and Sánchez had three more outs to get.
He got a routine flyball to left, then issued his first walk, and that put runners on first and second. Suzuki stepped in front of the plate, turned his glove and right hand over, and pushed them toward the ground while nodding his head. He was telling Sánchez to calm down, breathe, focus on fooling the next batter with any of his six pitches. Sánchez listened by getting two groundouts, using 12 of his 87 pitches to do so, and the danger was pushed aside.
Hunter Strickland gave up a run in the seventh — the first allowed by one of Washington’s new relievers — but the Giants’ last efforts ended there. Fernando Rodney and Sean Doolittle worked two scoreless innings to seal a second consecutive victory. Suzuki’s fingerprints were all over it.
“He’s been awesome, really has,” Manager Dave Martinez said of Suzuki.”And not just his hitting, the way he’s been calling games, his leadership in the clubhouse, everything about him has been really really good.”