Harper sets table, Soto drives him in to secure Nats’ 4-2 win

When the Nationals really needed to deliver a late rally to pull out a close ballgame, they turned to Bryce Harper to set the table and Juan Soto to drive him in.

Hey, these are strange times in the nation’s capital. What used to work can’t be counted on to work anymore. Sometimes you’ve got to try something different.

Davey Martinez did just that tonight, moving the slumping Harper to the leadoff spot in the hopes he would draw more walks and not worry about driving in runs, then moving Soto into the cleanup spot and hoping the 19-year-old sensation would come through in a big spot with runners on base.

Harper-Beardless-Swings-White-Sidebar.jpgAnd in the bottom of the eighth inning tonight, that’s exactly what happened. Knotted in a tie game with the Orioles, Harper led things off with a double down the right field line, recording his first hit of the night to go along with two walks and a sacrifice fly. Then after Trea Turner singled up the middle to bring the go-ahead runner to third, Soto roped what has become one of his signature hits already in the big leagues: an opposite-field double.

Harper and Turner came racing around to score, Soto coasted into second base and pumped his fist, and the Nationals took a 4-2 lead that would hold up by night’s end.

A crowd of 36,868 roared for the kid who has taken this town by storm in the last month. Soto now sports a .326 batting average, 1.024 OPS and 16 RBI in 28 career games. Not bad at all.

Kelvin Herrera, who pitched a 1-2-3 top of the eighth for his second consecutive perfect inning of relief since joining the club earlier in the week, wound up with his first win as a National. Sean Doolittle then retired the side in the top of the ninth to secure his 20th save in 21 attempts and secure the Nats’ fifth win in six head-to-head games with the Orioles for the season.

All of this came after a bit of an odd night for Max Scherzer, who watched Jace Peterson line his first pitch of the game to right field for a single, then Adam Jones drive a ball to the warning track moments later. There were several more balls driven to the warning track throughout the evening, not to mention possibly the ugliest wild pitch of Scherzer’s career, when he appeared to be briefly distracted by Peterson leading off second base.

Ultimately, though, Scherzer’s outing was defined by the two balls that didn’t just reach the warning track but actually cleared it.

Colby Rasmus struck first, launching a 1-1 fastball in the top of the second to center field, an out-of-nowhere home run from a guy activated off the 60-day disabled list earlier in the afternoon.

Two innings later, Mark Trumbo ambushed a first-pitch fastball from Scherzer and sent it soaring to right-center field, giving the Orioles a 2-1 lead and leaving everyone in the park wondering what was wrong with the Nats ace.

Scherzer legitimately didn’t look great tonight. And yet by the time he departed, he had allowed two runs on five hits in seven innings, striking out nine and throwing 72-of-102 pitches for strikes. Which underscores just how great the three-time Cy Young Award winner really is. On a night when he clearly wasn’t right, he still more than got the job done.

The Nationals, though, had squandered Scherzer’s last two starts, dropping each by a score of 2-0. Now they were going to have to try to avoid doing it yet again.

It didn’t come easily, but the Nats did manage to scratch out two runs while Scherzer was in the game. They plated their first run in the bottom of the third, when a Wilmer Difo single and a Pedro Severino double left traffic on the bases for Harper, who did what he needed to do and lofted a fly ball to left field for a sacrifice fly.

It was emblematic of Harper’s first game back in the leadoff spot since early May. After three plate appearances, he had zero official at-bats, sandwiching a pair of walks around that sac fly. Hey, it’s a start for a guy desperately trying to get himself out of the worst prolonged slump of his career.

The Nationals’ second run came via an uncommon sight around these parts in recent days: a home run. Anthony Rendon supplied it to lead off the bottom of the sixth, and in doing so recorded only the Nats’ eighth homer of the month. (They’ve surrendered 28.)

With Scherzer still the pitcher of record in the bottom of the seventh, the nationals had a golden opportunity to put him in line for the win when Difo ripped a leadoff triple to right-center. But Severino grounded out to first, and then Daniel Murphy - despite making some of his best contact since coming off the DL - lined a ball right at Rasmus in right field and then watched as catcher Caleb Joseph made a leaping grab and tag of Difo just in time to complete an inning-ending double play.

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