NEW YORK - If you’re not going to take a few chances and push some buttons you don’t normally push on the final day before the All-Star break, when are you going to do it?
Davey Martinez, who on Thursday afternoon spoke of the urgency he and his Nationals needed to show in this weekend’s series against the Mets, did just that in today’s first-half finale.
In the top of the seventh inning of a tie game, the bases loaded and nobody out, Michael A. Taylor at the plate, Martinez called upon Daniel Murphy to pinch-hit. He may not be peak Daniel Murphy right now, but he’s still Daniel Murphy against the Mets at Citi Field, and that combination certainly has paid off plenty of times in the last 2 1/2 years.
And sure enough, it paid off again. Murphy ripped a two-run single to right to give the Nationals a lead. And when his teammates tacked on three more runs to cap a five-spot in the inning, they were on their way to a 6-1 victory that will propel them into the four-day break feeling a whole lot better about themselves than they felt after back-to-back losses Friday and Saturday.
Throw in the Phillies blowing a five-run lead to the Marlins, and the vibe is only more positive for the Nationals, who finally gained some ground in the National League East race and now go into the All-Star break 5 1/2 games back, with the Braves also still above them, in second place.
“It’s not so much last game before the break, but like we’ve said before, we need to win every game we can,” Trea Turner said. “So it was good to even the series.”
It was a nice conclusion to what initially looked like it could be a frustrating afternoon.
The last thing anyone wanted on the final day before the All-Star break was a rain delay, certainly one that featured only a little bit of actual rain, but both of these teams nonetheless had to wait an extra 47 minutes to get this game started.
Once the proceedings did get underway, both pitchers worked fast and both lineups were aggressive.
Each team plated a run in the second inning, each when a batter (Taylor for the Nationals, Jose Reyes for the Mets) hustled down the line to prevent the opposition from completing a 6-4-3 double play and thus allowing a runner from third to score.
But that’s all either side could manage early on against a couple of starters who cruised.
Mets rookie right-hander Corey Oswalt retired the side in four of his five innings, notching only one strikeout but inducing a lot of weak contact. He departed having surrendered only two hits (both singles) without issuing a walk.
Jeremy Hellickson, meanwhile, did what he has done almost every time he’s taken the mound for the Nationals this season. The one run he allowed came via a walk, a productive ground ball, a single and a fielder’s choice. He got into a jam in the fifth with runners on the corners but got Brandon Nimmo to fly out. And he completed those five innings on 61 pitches.
Now came a decision for Martinez, who has firmly established a plan all season to pull Hellickson before he can face a lineup a third time. But the rookie manager let the veteran starter bat for himself in the top of the sixth (he singled) and pitch the bottom of the sixth (he overcame a leadoff walk with an inning-ending double play).
And so for only the second time this season, Hellickson completed six innings. More importantly, he allowed just the one run. He has now allowed zero or one run seven times in 13 starts.
“It feels good,” the right-hander said. “Obviously, I know I’m not the pitcher I was the last two months of last year (when he had a 6.97 ERA with the Orioles). It was a matter of finding the team to take a chance on me that believed in me. And I guess they believed in me. So it’s nice to come out and pitch well this first half.”
Hellickson hasn’t always been rewarded for his efforts, but this time his teammates came through with a sustained rally in the top of the seventh to take the lead.
Walks by Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon and a single by Matt Adams set the table for the Nationals. Martinez then made the decision to bat Murphy for Taylor against right-hander Tim Peterson (who has seen left-handed batters post an .899 OPS against him this season).
“I really believed that if we score right there, that was a big moment in the game,” Martinez said. “We had our bullpen all set up. And Murph, you know, perfect guy to be up there with bases loaded, no outs. You know he’s going to move the ball. And he came through.”
Yes, he did. Murphy, out of the lineup after starting the previous three games on his surgically repaired right knee, delivered as he so often does against his former team. He ripped a single to right field, and Soto and Rendon came around to score the go-ahead runs.
“I can’t say enough about Soto, Rendon and Adams in front of me, getting out there with great at-bats for us to get into that position to try to take a lead,” Murphy said. “I came in today, saw the lineup and went to work on my swing. And I was, fortunately, able to come up in a big spot and get a base hit.”
The Nats weren’t done. They took advantage of Jerry Blevins’ lost command when Wilmer Difo and Eaton were hit by pitches in successive at-bats, the latter with the bases loaded again. Then Turner capped off the five-run rally with a two-run single to left, giving his bullpen some breathing room.
“That’s huge,” Turner said. “Especially because the game was pretty slow up to that point, and getting one run there ... who knows (if it) would have been enough. Our bullpen’s been really good, but anything can happen. It’s nice to get that five-run lead and relax a little bit, kind of put the pressure on the other guys than put the pressure on ourselves.”
With no reason to save his top relievers, Martinez used Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Kelvin Herrera to finish out the game even with a five-run lead. And the Nationals walked out of Citi Field and prepared to scatter around the country to enjoy a needed break while the rest of the baseball world convenes on South Capitol Street.
“The message to the boys is clear: We come back and just have some fun and enjoy the second half,” Martinez said. “I think these guys are ready to go. We’ll fare well.”