The Nationals expect to have a fully healthy lineup within a matter of weeks, with Michael A. Taylor set to return from the disabled list first, then Jayson Werth and Trea Turner following shortly after that. Which means Brian Goodwin is headed back to the bench in the near future, and Andrew Stevenson is likely headed back to the minors (at least until rosters expand in September).
As long as both rookie outfielders are here and wearing Nationals uniforms, though, they’re going to keep getting opportunities to make a difference on a first place club. And when this season ends, with the Nats inching their way toward a fourth division title in six years, they will have done so thanks to the contributions not only of their veteran stars but of the young kids who were forced to step in this summer.
“That’s what they’re here for,” manager Dusty Baker said. “We’re very proud of them, because there’d be no way we’d be where we are - with all the injuries that we’ve had - without them.”
They certainly wouldn’t have won tonight’s game without them. It was Goodwin’s leadoff homer in the bottom of the eighth that gave the Nationals a 3-2 lead, their first lead of the evening. And it was Stevenson’s diving catch of Dee Gordon’s sinking liner to left that ended the game with the tying run stranded on third base.
“It feels good, man,” Goodwin said. “Just to be in this lineup, just to have a role in this lineup. These guys, they play hard, man, they’re great players. They show up to play every day. That’s a good feeling. That makes it easy. Just knowing they’ve got my back, it feels good being in the lineup.”
Goodwin has struggled at times in the last month, taking over as the everyday center fielder after Taylor (who had taken over for Adam Eaton) strained an oblique muscle. But through it all, he has delivered some big hits at big moments. And provided power that may have surprised some but not those who watched him average 14 homers in each of his four healthy minor league seasons.
Goodwin’s first contribution tonight came in the bottom of the sixth, when he ripped an RBI single to right to get the Nationals on the board for the first time in the game. He then stole second and scored the tying run on Bryce Harper’s double off the scoreboard in right-center. (Marlins manager Don Mattingly later admitted he wanted starter Dan Straily to intentionally walk Harper with first base open, but the two got their signs confused.)
Two innings later, with the game still tied 2-2, Goodwin pounced on a pitch from reliever Junichi Tazawa and sent it soaring into the second deck down the right field line. His 13th homer in 242 major league at-bats this season gave the Nationals their first lead.
“I’ve seen him progress a lot,” Baker said. “Like I’ve said all along, he’s a quick learner. He takes instructions well, he has a good attitude about things. Nothing seems to bother him. How many teams can lose two center fielders, and then the next one steps up?”
And how many teams can summon a talented-but-inexperienced prospect to take over backup duties when two veteran outfielders (Chris Heisey, Ryan Raburn) landed on the DL and then watch him make the play that saves a game in the middle of a pennant race?
Stevenson hasn’t received much playing time since he was called up last month - he has taken only 16 plate appearances - but he was entrusted to pinch-run for Adam Lind in the bottom of the seventh of a tie game tonight, and then to take over in left field for the final two innings.
Boy, did that move pay off for the Nationals. With two outs in the ninth but the tying run 90 feet from scoring, Stevenson found himself in the line of fire. Marlins leadoff man extraordinaire Dee Gordon was at the plate against Sean Doolittle, and everybody in the park knew if Gordon somehow managed to put one of Doolittle’s fastballs in play in the air, it was almost certainly going to be to left field.
Davey Lopes, who in addition to his first base coaching duties also positions the Nationals outfielders, had Stevenson shaded way over toward the line and in quite shallow, anticipating Gordon’s slap-hitting technique.
“I knew Gordon was up, but even Davey said give it a little more,” Stevenson said. “It ended up working out perfectly.”
Yes, it did. After fouling off a trio of two-strike fastballs, Gordon finally got one in play. It wasn’t hit hard, but it looked like it would be a perfectly placed slice down the left field line, the little looper that would tie the game after Miguel Rojas had blooped a broken-bat double to a similar spot on the field earlier in the inning.
“Off the bat, I knew he didn’t hit it very hard,” Doolittle said. “But neither did Rojas, and that ball dropped in. So I was like: ‘Oh, no.’ And I turned around, and Stevenson had him played perfectly.”
The rookie outfielder raced to his right and in and - thanks in part to the fact he’s left-handed - was able to making a diving, forehand catch just before the ball landed, setting off a loud roar from the crowd of 23,904.
“It’s a really cool feeling,” Stevenson said. “I’m just grateful to have the opportunity to be out there.”
And the Nationals are grateful to have two rookie outfielders they could turn to when they needed to win a game tonight while a full slate of veterans watched from the DL.
“Tonight was a game of our youth,” Baker said. “That’s a tribute to our system, to our minor league system. They’re thrust into the fire, and they’re performing well.”