Hellickson back to form, Nats back over .500 after 5-1 win (updated)

PITTSBURGH - It was the formula that worked so well in April and May - five dominant innings from Jeremy Hellickson, then four innings from the bullpen - but had been long forgotten as Hellickson spent June recovering from a hamstring injury and then made his first start of July while under the weather.

Hellickson, though, is healthy again. And tonight he pitched like the early-season version of himself again. And because his teammates were able to score runs in bunches for a stretch during their game against the Pirates, the Nationals walked out of PNC Park at the end of a long night with a much-needed, 5-1 victory.

“It was just good to feel good again,” said Hellickson, who had caught a nasty bug that affected several teammates over the last week. “The last five days have been pretty rough. I don’t really remember much. It was good to get out there and get a win.”

Hellickson threw only 67 pitches over five scoreless innings, but that once again sufficed for the Nats. This was the fifth time in 12 starts this season the journeyman right-hander has allowed zero or one run without being given a chance to complete seven innings, but it’s a formula that has worked for manager Davey Martinez.

Still banged up and still dealing with no shortage of issues, the Nationals nonetheless are back over .500, gained a game on the Braves (but not the Phillies) tonight and Wednesday afternoon will go for their second consecutive series win.

“After you lose game one, we come out, even the series,” said Daniel Murphy, who went 4-for-4 in his best performance since returning from knee surgery. “We got a chance to win the series tomorrow.”

This evening’s proceedings began under inauspicious circumstances, what with a 50-minute rain delay at the outset that included neither rain nor so much as a fully overcast sky. The storm cell that had been approaching from the northwest broke up and veered away from PNC Park, leaving a lot of people twiddling their thumbs from 7:05 until 7:55 p.m., at which point Joe Musgrove finally threw the first pitch of the game.

The worse omen from the Nationals’ standpoint was the complete squandering of some golden scoring opportunities early on. They went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position in the first two innings alone, with four of the outs coming via strikes.

Rendon-Trots-Gray-PIT-sidebar.jpgBut eventually someone had to come through in a big spot, and that someone was Anthony Rendon in the top of the fifth. Moments after Juan Soto legged out an infield single when he was able to put a two-strike pitch in play, Rendon ambushed Musgrove’s first-pitch fastball and sent it soaring over the fence in the deepest crevice of this ballpark in left-center field.

“We get the big blast there from Tony,” Murphy said. “That kind of lets everybody catch their breath a little bit.”

Rendon’s 13th homer of the season gave the Nationals a 2-0 lead, and it ultimately helped set up the most interesting decision of the game one inning later.

Hellickson had cruised through five scoreless innings on 67 pitches. With the Pirates lineup set to bat a third time, the opportunity presented itself for Martinez to turn to his bullpen.

But that bullpen was tired and no longer featured closer Sean Doolittle, who earlier in the day went on the disabled list with a pinched nerve in his left foot. So Martinez had to consider keeping Hellickson in the game.

Except then his spot came up to bat with the bases loaded and one out in the top of the sixth, presenting an opportunity to go for the kill. Which Martinez did, sending up Mark Reynolds to pinch-hit against left-hander Steven Brault ... who promptly walked the slugger on four pitches to force in a run.

“I definitely understand,” Hellickson said. “I mean, it’s 2-0. You’ve got Reynolds, who is on fire right now. So I definitely understand.”

And the Nationals kept the rally going. Adam Eaton singled home the second run of the inning. Then Soto (who also had three opposite-field singles in the game) drew his own bases-loaded walk to extend the lead to 5-0 and help reward Martinez for his decision to pinch-hit for Hellickson.

“You have bases loaded. You have an opportunity to break open the game right there. So that’s what I decided to do,” Martinez said. “Mark has been swinging the bat really hot. Hellickson gave us five strong innings after coming off being sick. I thought we could score some runs right there, and we did.”

Martinez still needed four quality innings from his bullpen, but he got them. Matt Grace, pitching for the third straight day, recorded two outs in the sixth. Brandon Kintzler finished out that inning and then pitched the seventh, allowing one run without benefit of a hit (walk, wild pitch, Bryce Harper error, RBI groundout). Ryan Madson retired the side in the eighth.

And then Kelvin Herrera, taking over closer duties in Doolittle’s absence, escaped a bases-loaded jam in the ninth to finish off a victory that got the Nationals back over the .500 mark.

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