Dusty Baker spent the season’s first half needing to piece together the final innings of games with a hodgepodge of relievers, seeking anyone available who reasonably could succeed in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
That issue finally was resolved in late July with the acquisitions of Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle, presenting Baker at last with stability at the back end of his bullpen ... for a couple of weeks.
Madson’s placement on the disabled list with a sprained index finger earlier this month threw a wrench into the paint-by-numbers bullpen plan. And when Kintzler needed a breather after throwing 43 pitches over the previous three days, Baker found himself once again in a tricky spot for a day-night doubleheader against the Mets.
“We had to piece together the whole day, actually,” the manager said. “And especially those last few innings.”
Somehow, those who did pitch the final three innings of today’s nightcap for the Nationals managed to do what needed to be done. Despite being asked to work overtime, the bullpen closed out a 5-4 victory to salvage both a doubleheader and a weekend series split.
“Nobody’s going to feel 100 percent, but that’s when you bear down and just try to get outs,” said Shawn Kelley, one of three veterans who pulled double duty today. “We knew a couple of us were probably going to have to throw both games. You’ve just got to try to do it and get your job done.”
Kelley was joined by Matt Albers and Joe Blanton in pitching both ends of the doubleheader, a less-than-ideal scenario but one that became necessary with Kintzler and at least one other reliever (most likely Oliver Pérez) unavailable to pitch in either game.
Even Doolittle, who survived a harrowing ninth inning in which the Mets scored one run and advanced the tying run to third base, put in extra work after twice warming up in the opener without entering the game, then returning to throw 19 high-leverage pitches in the nightcap.
“It’s tough to get your body fully hot to pitch in the game, or even to just warm up,” Doolittle said. “Both times I warmed up in the first game, I was one pitch away from going in. So not just physically - because you get fully hot - but also mentally and emotionally, to come all the way back down for a couple hours and then have to ramp it back up, that can be tough. The guys did a really good job of battling and dug deep and got some big outs.”
Doolittle had to pitch out of a jam in the ninth to secure his 13th save in 13 opportunities since joining the club. Albers also escaped a jam in the seventh to preserve what was at that point a 4-3 lead. Kelley and Blanton then combined to pitch a scoreless eighth, each taking the mound for the second time in roughly seven hours.
“I think that’s the first time I’ve done it,” said Kelley, owner of 382 career big league appearances. “It’s different, but fortunately I didn’t throw too many in the first. Just tried to go through my routine like I normally would and try to treat it like I didn’t really pitch in the first one and it didn’t happen, or it was the day before.”
Given a confluence of circumstances - the makeup of a July 5 rainout, an 8:07 p.m. Sunday night first pitch, no late-night Metro service, several area school districts opening Monday - only a sparse gathering of fans turned out on South Capitol Street for the nightcap of this long doubleheader, the Nationals’ third in the last five Sundays.
Those who did attend witnessed an unusually dominant performance from Tanner Roark. Not unusual in that he dominated, but in that he dominated by preventing the Mets from even putting the ball in play.
Roark struck out the side in the second, then struck out the side in the fourth. He wound up striking out nine of the first 15 New York batters he faced, a rare display of that kind of stuff from a pitcher who typically relies on weak contact to record outs.
“There were a lot of strike ones, and just attacking the zone,” Roark said. “Curveball was really good again. And just going off of that, just keep them uncomfortable out there.”
There was, however, a brief-but-costly slip-up in the top of the sixth. The Mets strung together three straight hits, capped by Brandon Nimmo’s 413-foot homer to center field, and suddenly Roark and the Nationals found themselves trailing 3-2 despite his dominant efforts.
No worries, because Roark’s teammates quickly ensured he wouldn’t be on the hook for the loss. Or, more accurately, the Mets bullpen did.
Relievers Hansel Robles and Chasen Bradford combined to walk four consecutive batters in the bottom of the sixth, two of them with the bases already loaded. Thus did the Nationals tie the game and then re-take the lead, with Andrew Stevenson earning his first career RBI the easy way.
Adam Lind’s solo homer in the bottom of the eighth added an insurance run, one that proved huge by the end of a long night at the end of a long day at the end of a long weekend of baseball in advance of a three-game series against a Marlins club that has won 13 of its last 16.
“It’s been a long three days since we got back from Houston,” said Baker, whose club landed in Washington at 4:45 a.m. Friday and then played four games in three days against the Mets. “Hopefully we get some rest tonight and come out strong against surging Miami. They’re playing pretty good baseball.”