PHILADELPHIA - Through a set of circumstances none of them would ever want to endure again, the Nationals found themselves taking the field in the ninth inning tonight having not lost a baseball game since Thursday.
Their winning streak was only three games, but add three postponements to the mix and you’ve got a team that hadn’t known what a loss felt like in a while.
Down three runs and having shown few signs of life at the plate since the early innings, there was reason to believe the Nats were going to have to taste defeat again. But this is a team that, in spite of everything that has gone wrong this season, has consistently shown spunk late in games and given itself a chance to come back to win.
And tonight was merely the latest example.
Needing a furious rally in the top of the ninth at the end of their second doubleheader in four days, they rallied to tie the game, scoring three runs off Phillies closer Seranthony Domínguez and keeping the game alive. And one inning later, Juan Soto delivered the final blow in a brilliant night to win it.
Soto, who already had homered and driven in three runs in this game, launched a solo shot to left-center off Yacksel Ríos in the top of the 10th, lifting the Nationals to a 7-6 victory and their first four-game winning streak since Memorial Day.
“That means a lot of things,” Soto said. “It’s good for this year and next year. We have the confidence to come back and never give up, keep fighting until it’s final.”
Soto’s game-winning blast came off an 0-1 pitch from Rios and was his 18th homer of the season, fourth-most all-time by a teenager in the major leagues.
“I’ve never seen a 19-year-old swing and be that patient at the plate,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He really concentrates on hitting strikes. He works counts. He’s really good. He’s 19, but he plays this game like he’s been in this league for a long time.”
Soto’s go-ahead homer came moments after the Nats somehow escaped a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the ninth to give the 19-year-old his opportunity. Wander Suero was brought in to face Carlos Santana with runners on the corners and two outs but immediately caught a spike on the mound and promptly spiked his pitch into the ground. Only the trailing runner advanced, though, and so with first base open the Nationals intentionally walked Santana and loaded the bases for José Bautista.
That actually was a better matchup for them, and it proved as much when Suero got the veteran right-handed hitter to send a lazy fly ball to center to end the ninth and keep this game going.
With Sean Doolittle unavailable after getting the save in the opener hours earlier, Greg Holland pitched the bottom of the 10th to wrap up this one, bouncing back after issuing consecutive two-out walks.
“I felt pretty good,” said the 32-year-old Holland, who threw a combined 46 pitches in the two games. “I got a little tired after the third hitter, but we locked it back in, made a couple good pitches and got the last guy out.”
The top-of-the-ninth rally featured only two hits, one of which didn’t even leave the infield. But it included plenty of quality plate appearances by Nationals hitters, who worked four walks in the inning.
The two singles (a Matt Wieters grounder through the right side and an Andrew Stevenson grounder to the hole at short that Pedro Florimón couldn’t handle) each drove in a run and trimmed a 6-3 deficit to 6-5. Adam Eaton’s subsequent walk loaded the bases for Trea Turner and brought Gabe Kapler out of the dugout to remove Domínguez (who had thrown 43 pitches) and summon Luis García from the bullpen.
García, though, misfired on a 3-2 slider to Turner, who took it for ball four and forced the tying run home as the crowd of 19,630 booed.
“Putting the ball in play, that was big,” Martinez said. “But being patient and taking our walks, that was the key. Keeping the train going. I’m really proud of the at-bats all day today.”
Earlier on, the Nats put themselves in position to sweep the Phillies and move to within 1 1/2 games of the fast-fading second-place club in the National League East, thanks to some early offense from Soto against Jake Arrieta.
The Nationals as a whole didn’t do much against Arrieta, but the youngest guy on the roster sure did. Soto drove in all three runs against the Phillies right-hander, ripping a double into the right field corner in the top of the second and then sending a two-run blast to right-center in the fifth to further add to his legacy.
That fifth-inning shot was Soto’s 17th home run of the season. That’s one more than Ken Griffey Jr. hit as a teenager. The only others to hit more than him in major league history: Tony Conigliario (24 in 1968), teammate Harper (22 in 2012) and Mel Ott (19 from 1926-28).
Up 3-0 in the fifth, the Nationals had to feel like they were in good shape. But then came a barrage of hits against Tanner Roark, an endless stream of singles and doubles that turned the game upside down. It included four straight hits with two outs, the first three of them driving in runs.
Through it all, Roark remained on the mound, manager Davey Martinez hoping his starter could record one more out and get through the frame. But by the time Santana doubled to right-center for the seventh hit of the inning, Martinez decided enough was enough and signaled to his bullpen.
It was a particularly frustrating start for Roark, who after a brilliant month coming out of the All-Star break, has reverted back to the form he displayed in the first half. Over his last three starts, Roark is 0-3 with a 9.77 ERA and 26 hits surrendered in only 15 2/3 innings.
“I should have slowed the game down a little bit more, took a deep breath and slow the game down,” he said. “But, I mean, who cares what I did today? We won. We came back and won a great game today, so that’s all that matters.”