There’s a reason Michael A. Taylor remains in the Nationals lineup, even when his batting average drops into the .180s and his strikeout totals pile up. He’s in there because of his defense. And if he happens to deliver a big hit in a key moment ... well, they’ll take that, too.
So on a night in which offense was at an extreme premium, the Nationals needed Taylor to come up big in both departments. And because of his pure athletic skill, he nearly single-handedly beat the Padres.
Three innings after uncorking a perfect throw to the plate from center field to prevent San Diego from scoring the go-ahead run, Taylor drove in the winning run. His one-out double off the center field wall in the bottom of the ninth allowed rookie Juan Soto to score from second base and set off a celebration at Nationals Park, where the home club pulled off a 2-1 victory.
The Padres thought they had a 2-1 lead in the top of the sixth when plate umpire Eric Cooper ruled Jose Pirela safe at the plate on Franmil Reyes’ single to center. The Nationals challenged the call, though, believing Pedro Severino’s tag off Taylor’s perfect throw - Statcast clocked it at 98.8 mph - got Pirela in time. And upon review, New York agreed, taking the run off the board and leaving the game deadlocked.
And so the game continued knotted at 1-1, with the Nationals finally setting the stage for a walk-off win in the bottom of the ninth. Soto led off by drawing his third four-pitch walk of the game, then reached second when San Diego third baseman Cory Spangenberg bobbled Wilmer Difo’s tailor-made, double-play grounder.
Taylor battled his way to a full count against left-hander Matt Strahm, then finally delivered his hit, a line drive off the wall in center field to bring his teammates out of the dugout in celebration.
Seeking some much-needed bullpen help for a group that lost Ryan Madson to the disabled list, manager Davey Martinez turned to Wander Suero tonight and got five big outs from the rookie right-hander to bridge the gap to the back end of his relief corps.
As good as he has been so far in his Nationals career, Jeremy Hellickson faced a new challenge tonight: a Padres lineup that just faced him two weeks ago. If his success has been predicated in part on deception, would anything change when an opponent was more familiar with him?
The Padres did make much harder contact off Hellickson than they did May 8 at Petco Park when they didn’t record their first hit until the seventh inning, but only one of them delivered a hit that scored a run. That was Franchy Cordero, the hefty slugger who launched a 1-1 pitch from Hellickson deep to right-center in the top of the fourth.
But in the end, Hellickson did exactly what he’s been doing every time he gets the ball this season: Pitch effectively. Though he departed with what appeared to be a blister on one of his pitching fingers with one out in the sixth, he did so having allowed only the one run. Which means he now sports a 2.13 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in seven starts for the Nationals. He has surrendered a total of two runs in his last four starts.
As has too often been the case, though, the Nats gave Hellickson precious little run support. They had plenty of opportunities to make a dent into unheralded left-hander Eric Lauer, but they went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts with runners in scoring position through the game’s first four innings.
Bryce Harper finally got his team on the board in the bottom of the fifth, launching a pitch from Lauer onto the batter’s eye in center field, his 15th homer of the season and second in as many nights. After a rough stretch through the first three weeks of the month, Harper has turned hot again the last two nights, with two homers, a double, a single, a walk and a lineout.