NEW YORK - The Nationals lineup is on the verge of being whole again, with Bryce Harper having done everything required to recover from the scary leg injury he suffered six weeks ago and now poised to come off the disabled list.
The club isn’t making it official yet - “We’re still trying to make up our minds,” manager Dusty Baker said. “We’ll let you know tomorrow.” - but sources familiar with the plan confirmed that (barring something unforeseen) Harper will be active for Monday night’s series opener in Philadelphia.
Once that happens, Harper will be embraced with open arms by teammates who back on Aug. 12 had no way of knowing for sure their star slugger would make it back for the final week of the regular season after suffering what looked like a gruesome left knee injury.
But they’ll also take solace knowing they more than held their own without him. In beating the Mets 3-2 today at Citi Field, they upped their winning percentage during the 41 games Harper has spent on the DL to .610, up slightly from their .605 mark through the season’s first 114 games.
The Nationals were able to cope with Harper’s loss, thanks to dominant pitching, such as the effort provided today by Max Scherzer and his bullpen. But they’ll feel better when they don’t always have to rely on that, thanks to a bolstered offense that saw its production drop with Harper out, from 5 runs per game to 4.1.
The three runs the Nats scored today against Jacob deGrom were enough, but barely enough. In order to hold up, they required not only Scherzer’s six innings of one-run ball but a scoreless seventh from Joe Blanton, and then a big-time escape act in the eighth from Sammy Solís after Ryan Madson faltered.
Madson was handed a 3-1 lead but gave one run back and then loaded the bases with two outs. Having thrown 35 total pitches over the last two days, the veteran setup man was pulled in favor of Solís, the once-struggling lefty who has turned his season around just in time.
Solís fell behind in the count 3-1 to Kevin Plawecki but blew him away with two swinging strikes after that, hopping off the mound having stranded the tying runner at third and having posted his ninth consecutive scoreless appearance to help his case for a spot in the postseason bullpen.
“Things were moving pretty fast there in the beginning,” Solís said. “A couple balls up and out, just speeding up, arm kind of lagging behind. And I just took a deep breath and gathered myself. The last thing I want to do is walk someone else’s run in, especially the tying run. So I geared up and gave him my best fastball, and he swung and missed, thankfully.”
Wanting to avoid throwing Sean Doolittle on back-to-back days, Dusty Baker entrusted the ninth inning to Brandon Kintzler. The former Twins closer also stranded the tying run on third to earn his 29th save of the season (his first with the Nationals).
“I don’t care what anyone says: The ninth inning is always different,” said Kintzler, who has mostly pitched the seventh since his July 31 acquisition. “Since you haven’t done it in over a month, the pressure just felt a little different, especially in front of a new team. It’s good to get something like that out of the way, so next week that pressure won’t be such a surprise.”
Rookie Victor Robles also chipped in two defensive gems in right field - a catch as he slammed into the wall, then a pinpoint throw to first base to complete a double play - to further his case for a spot on the postseason roster and secure this win, which happened to secure home field advantage for the Nationals in the National League Division Series, no matter the opponent.
As he has done with more frequency of late, Baker sat several veteran regulars, with Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Matt Wieters getting the day off. That only added to the Nationals’ stiff challenge in trying to beat deGrom, who has owned many hitters from this lineup in his career.
And the Mets ace made mincemeat of most of the Nationals batters he faced today, striking out 11 in his six innings on the mound. But it only took a couple of well-timed hits for the Nats to inflict enough damage against him.
Trea Turner scalded a slider from deGrom to left field in the top of the third, a line drive laser that cleared the wall for a two-run homer. Two innings later, Michael A. Taylor legged out an infield single, then stole second and advanced to third when Travis d’Arnaud’s throw got away. That put him in position to score moments later on Jose Lobaton’s RBI single to left.
Lobaton, the only Nationals starter who took batting practice before the game, wound up 2-for-2 against deGrom, but that was nothing new for this matchup. The normally light-hitting catcher is now 4-for-7 in his career vs. the New York right-hander.
Those three runs were ample support for Scherzer, who made only one real mistake in his six innings: a 1-0 pitch to Brandon Nimmo in the bottom of the first that wound up in the second deck above the right field fence.
Scherzer allowed only three other Mets to reach base, never more than one per inning. Along the way, he struck out 10 batters for the 15th time this year and raised his league-leading season total to 263.
With his pitch count at 87 after six innings, Scherzer easily could have returned to the mound. But after pushing himself to get over the 110 mark in each of his last two starts as part of his October preparation, Scherzer dialed it back this afternoon and turned the final three innings of this game over to his bullpen.
“I could have gone out for the seventh,” he said. “Wasn’t gonna push pitch count terribly high today, but (pitching coach Mike Maddux) just made that decision for me and just wanted to go to the bullpen and take me out early today. I’m not fighting it. It’s smart, considering I only have one more start before the postseason. I got my work in today, executed pitches and we came away with a win.”