Panda! Sandoval helps Braves sweep doubleheader against Nats

National Sports
Ronald Acuna Jr.

Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. celebrates his double during the first inning in the first baseball game of a doubleheader against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park, Wednesday, April 7, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Yes, Pablo Sandoval is 34 and in his 14th year in the majors, a two-time All-Star and a World Series MVP. He still needed to prove himself in spring training to earn a roster spot with the Atlanta Braves and a $1 million, one-year deal.

He’s sure paying dividends quickly.

The guy affectionately known as Kung Fu Panda hit his second pinch-hit homer in a week Wednesday, driving a two-run shot to the deepest part of the ballpark off a Washington reliever who took over after Stephen Strasburg’s six scoreless innings and lifting the Braves to a 2-0 victory over the Nationals for a doubleheader sweep.

“I don’t want to lie,” said Sandoval, who hit three homers in one game for the San Francisco Giants in the 2012 Fall Classic. “It’s one of those moments when you get goose bumps.”

Atlanta entered the day 0-4 but got headed in the right direction during the opener, when Ronald Acuña Jr. led the way with a double and a pair of singles to help the Braves win 7-6.

Sandoval signed a minor league contract in January with the Braves, then earned a job, which sure looks like a wise choice by the club.

“No situation’s going to be too big,” manager Brian Snitker said. “Not only in that role, but in the clubhouse, too. This guy is awesome to have on your team.”

Sandoval came off the bench to homer on opening day, then did the same Wednesday. He turned on a 96 mph fastball from Tanner Rainey (0-1) with a 3-2 count, sending it more than 400 feet following Dansby Swanson’s two-out single in the seventh and final inning.

“I missed my spot,” Rainey said, “and he didn’t miss his swing.”

The righty hadn’t faced hitters since the exhibition finale in Florida nine days earlier. A coronavirus outbreak that hit the Nationals kept them from working out or playing for nearly a full week.

Luke Jackson (1-0) earned the win in Game 2 by pitching around a pair of walks in the sixth.

Sean Newcomb got three strikeouts for the save.

“That’s closer stuff, right there,” Snitker said.

Strasburg hadn’t pitched in a regular-season game since being shut down last August and having carpal tunnel surgery on his right wrist.

Reaching 95 mph with his fastball, Strasburg struck out eight and walked two while exceeding his total inning output for 2020, which was just five.

The 2019 World Series MVP made only two appearances last year. The 32-year-old right-hander’s preparation this spring was slowed by a left calf issue, but he showed zero signs of being anything but at his best Wednesday, retiring his last 10 batters.

“That was awesome to see,” manager Dave Martinez said. “Man, he looked great.”

The only hit Strasburg allowed was a single to the game’s second batter, Ozzie Albies. The only real trouble came in the third, when Strasburg walked Acuña and Albies, bringing Freddie Freeman to the plate. But Strasburg retired the reigning NL MVP on a fly to center.

“My execution was not very good most of spring training,” Strasburg said. “I thought my execution was a lot better today and it’s a step in the right direction.”

Strasburg, who doubled in his first at-bat, was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the sixth after 85 pitches.

Huascar Ynoa went five scoreless innings for Atlanta, allowing two hits.

In Game 1, the Braves put up five runs in the second inning off Erick Fedde (0-1), then held on with a save by Will Smith a day after he gave up a walk-off hit to Juan Soto.

Smith, Atlanta’s fifth pitcher, didn’t have an easy time of things, though.

Trying to protect a 7-5 lead Wednesday, the first batter he faced was Soto. This time, Soto walked, and Starlin Castro drove him in with a double. Then, with two men on, Smith got Andrew Stevenson to ground into a double play.

“This was kind of an agonizing week,” Snitker said after Atlanta avoided what would have been its first 0-5 start since 2016. “A good day to end the road trip.”

STRASBURG’S SESSION

Strasburg said he managed to get in a throwing session with a bullpen catcher while the Nationals were idle by crawling through some bushes and hopping a fence to get into a Little League field in Virginia.

“I didn’t want to do that again,” he said.

HUMDRUM

Even though 4,927 spectators were present — unlike last season, when all fans were banned —- there still was fake crowd noise piped in, offering an odd, and annoying, hum of a soundtrack.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Braves: RHP Mike Soroka, sidelined since August after tearing his Achilles tendon, will be shut down for two weeks because of inflammation in his right shoulder. He threw an inning during a simulated game Tuesday and does not have any structural damage, Snitker said. … Game 1 pitcher Max Fried was hit by a batted ball but neither he nor Snitker sounded too worried about the lefty’s leg. “Nothing too serious,” the pitcher said.

Nationals: Missing nine players because of their COVID-19 outbreak — four who tested positive, five who were quarantined because of potential exposure. Those under quarantine possibly could rejoin the club on its upcoming six-game trip, Martinez said.

UP NEXT

Braves: Home opener is Friday against the Phillies, with Charlie Morton starting for Atlanta against Zack Wheeler.

Nationals: Planned to fly to California on Wednesday night; they open a three-game set at the Dodgers on Friday. “It’s been a long week,” Martinez said. “It’s been a long week for all of us.”

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