Travis Blankenhorn hits the home run on debut as the Nationals lose to the Marlins

After driving six hours from Rochester, NY on Friday, Travis Blankenhorn found his locker at the Washington Nationals clubhouse — tucked in the back, wedged between some familiar faces — and saw a number 33 jersey with his name on it. He tried it on, tucked it into a pair of black track shorts and turned for his teammates as if they were trying on clothes in a fitting room. Then Blankenhorn, one of two Nationals nominees on Sept. 1, went for a home run on his second record appearance.

In Washington’s 8-5 loss to the Marlins — a play that tipped the scales for Miami in the 11th inning — Blankenhorn started in left field and hit fifth, hitting Eury Pérez with a home run and walking twice. Otherwise, he was eliminated in the eighth round and was narrowly hit in the eleventh. So all in all, he made a solid first impression, even if he couldn’t help the Nationals (62-74) avoid their third loss in a row and their fifth in six games.

After clubs traded in the 10th run, the Marlins (68-67) scored four runs in the 11th. Left-hander Robert Garcia, who received a dispensation in Miami Aug. 1, threw 28 shots and posted six outs in Thursday’s series opener. Spurred on by manager Dave Martinez, he faced three batters on Friday and hit three singles, with the last two yielding a run each. Mason Thompson came in and Garrett Hampson put him deep in the middle for a two-run shot. It was Hampton’s second home run of the year.

“I thought he did it [Jazz Chisholm Jr.] struck out,” Martinez said of the first hitter Garcia faced who eventually floated a single to the left. “…He came out and fired 95-magnitude bullets [mph]. He said he feels great. That was a big moment for him. We had Chisholm, a couple of lefties up front; He just didn’t get a break today.”

“Honestly, I thought I made some pretty good pitches for the most part,” Garcia said. “Unfortunately, you have to get the prelude to Jazz, which lands on the base there. It was a blunder. It is what it is.”

Blankenhorn, 27, earned his shot at the Nationals by posting a 1.047 OPS for Class AAA Rochester in August. Friday was not his major league debut. That happened to the Minnesota Twins in 2020, five years after they drafted him in the third round from Pottsville High in Pennsylvania. Since then he has only had 31 recording appearances in three seasons. He traveled from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Oklahoma City; Syracuse, NY to Tacoma, Washington; then back to Syracuse before Washington signed him to a minor league contract with an invite to off-season spring training and eventually landed him in Rochester.

At one level or another, there are usually at-bats for a left-handed player with some pop. Blankenhorn’s challenge was to give his father a chance. Reporting on his August on Friday, he kept emphasizing the importance of better swing decisions.

That would also be crucial when it comes to Pérez, a 20-year-old phenomenon filling the attacking zone. Pérez, who is just 1m90 tall, took a 2-0 lead against seven of the top ten batsmen he faced. In the first run, CJ Abrams, Washington’s leadoff hitter, rallied and hit a home run down the second deck from the right. Blankenhorn fought to the max and ended up walking to extend the inning. Jacob Young, the club’s rookie center fielder, worked a full count and hit a single through the middle in the second set. Blankenhorn rocked Pérez’s high fastball an inning later.

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“It was definitely an experience,” said Blankenhorn. “Good crowd out there, but honestly I kind of passed out and don’t remember it that well.”

The Marlins showered Nationals starter Jake Irvin with singles and doubles games. Luis Arraez hit a single in the first inning and a double in the third, scoring once in each inning. In the third, Irvin carried the batters through on both sides of Arraez and gave a four-pitch pass to former Nationals first baseman Josh Bell. Miami scored twice in the inning for a 3-1 lead, but Irvin found his command and coped. After scoring two goals early in the fourth inning, he knocked out Joey Wendle, unleashed a racy double strike and then ended his effort with a five-way pass. He threw 80 pitches and was flagged for three carries.

When Irvin was eliminated, Lane Thomas and Blankenhorn had used solo home runs against Pérez to equalize 3-0 in the third set. Outside the bullpen, Jose A. Ferrer, Jordan Weems, Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan kept the Marlins calm in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth rounds. Then, after first baseman Dominic Smith made a handful of sharp plays and after Thomas, returning from the back tight, extended the game with an RBI single in the 10th game, the Marlins had the final say. In the 11th game, Carter Kieboom’s RBI single was only able to close the final deficit.

“[Blankenhorn] “I had four really good bat shots tonight,” Thomas said. “… After hitting the ball in the middle [on his groundout in the eighth]I was like, “I thought they can’t move anymore.” This guy was really close.”

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Had James Wood or Robert Hassell III been on the march, perhaps one of them would have been called up in Blankenhorn’s place. However, Wood hits in a third of his plate appearances at Class AA Harrisburg and chases too many pitches below the zone. Also at Harrisburg in August, Hassell failed 41 percent of his recording appearances, a remarkable number that cannot be explained by hamate and wrist injuries in recent years.

To be clear, they are both young and still developing. The 20-year-old Wood is the club’s top candidate – and has the best system performance with 24 home runs, one more than Blankenhorn’s hit for Rochester. Hassell, 22, is close behind Wood on most lists. However, with neither player compelled by the Nationals, Blankenhorn was chosen on Friday and traveled to DC with substitute Amos Willingham. He’ll have a chance to prove himself while keeping a spot warm. Travis Blankenhorn hits the home run on debut as the Nationals lose to the Marlins

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