Squeeze play highlights Nats’ long-awaited rally

Michael A. Taylor wasn’t surprised when he got the sign from Bob Henley.

“I’m ready for anything,” the Nationals center fielder said. “We did work on it in spring training, so I feel comfortable with it.”

“It” was the safety squeeze manager Davey Martinez called in the bottom of the sixth this afternoon, the Nationals and Rockies tied at that point with runners on the corners and one out. At a time when his team was searching for any way possible to score a key run, Martinez decided to ask Taylor to do something he doesn’t often do but nonetheless was prepared to do.

Bryce-Harper-bat-white.pngAnd when Taylor squared around on Jon Gray’s first pitch and got the bunt down to the right of the pitcher’s mound, and once Bryce Harper was finally called safe at the plate after a replay review of a bang-bang play in which Rockies first baseman Ian Desmond made a nifty glove flip to catcher Tony Wolters, the Nationals at long last had themselves a lead.

It may have come in unconventional fashion, but that mattered not at all to a Nationals clubhouse that was simply relieved to win a game, 6-2, and snap a three-game losing streak.

“We put a safety squeeze on, and it worked,” Martinez said. “I was very surprised ... well, not surprised, because Ian’s a good defender. But he got to the ball so quick. It was a perfect bunt, and he made it a lot closer. And Harp had an unbelievable slide to make it home, kept his foot down.”

Indeed, had Harper’s front foot been slightly up off the ground, Wolters’ tag would’ve gotten him and the crowd of 31,700 would’ve let out a massive groan. Instead, thanks to his deft slide and immediate signal to the dugout to ask for a replay review, Harper and Co. emerged with their most important run of this homestand.

“From where I was, he looked safe. He really did,” Martinez said. “I thought he slipped under the tag and had his feet in. And it worked out in our favor.”

“I wasn’t sure,” Wolters told reporters in the Rockies clubhouse. “I know his feet came in first. That was a bang-bang play. I thought it would be close. Desmond made a really good play. We almost had him. It would have been a really cool play.”

It was, from the Nationals’ perspective. And it helped propel them to a desperately needed, four-run rally in the bottom of the sixth that turned a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 lead.

Hits, which had been in such short supply around here, finally came in bunches. Harper followed Wilmer Difo’s leadoff single with one of his own to set the stage. Matt Wieters drove in the tying run with a single to left. Taylor wound up credited with an RBI single for his successful bunt. And then Moisés Sierra (a later substitution for Brian Goodwin, who was scratched with a sore wrist) delivered the extra blow, a two-run double to right-center.

“We’ve felt like we’ve been a swing away a lot,” Wieters said. “So to be able to come through and get those swings is big for us, to put together a multiple-run inning as opposed to just stringing one here and there.”

As frustrating as recent losses had been, the Nationals really would have agonized had they been unable to deliver at the plate this afternoon, not after Max Scherzer had done everything in his power to give them a chance. Despite putting his team in a 2-0 hole only three batters into the game thanks to a four-pitch walk of Gerardo Parra and then a homer to right-center by Charlie Blackmon, Scherzer was in full lockdown mode after that.

The three-time Cy Young Award winner retired 20 consecutive batters following the home run, 10 of them via strikeout, and departed after the seventh having surrendered only one hit and one walk on a 103-pitch day.

“You’ve got to work inning-by-inning,” Scherzer said. “Just keep grinding, keep fighting, keep competing, keep trying to throw up zeroes, work quick and let the goose eggs keep going. And that seems to provide momentum for the offense. Even when you face some good pitching, if you keep the momentum on your side and keep going back out there and doing your job, I’ve got enough confidence that our guys can grind out some ABs and find a way to scratch some runs across.”

The Nationals did more than scratch some runs across. They exploded for a four-spot for the first time since Goodwin’s ninth-inning grand slam in Cincinnati in the season’s second game.

And that allowed everybody to head home happy for the first time in a while.

“What a nice day,” Martinez said.

Nobody on South Capitol Street could disagree.

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