The Nationals finally found a formula to win a game late: Get a scoreless top of the eighth from one of their few effective relievers, take the lead with back-to-back homers in the bottom of the eighth, then let Sean Doolittle take care of the ninth.
Oh, and do all this moments after the Capitals win a playoff game in overtime a few miles away.
Talk about a turn of events.
On an otherwise lazy Saturday afternoon that saw them flail away at the plate for seven innings against Chris Archer, the Nationals were ignited back to life in the bottom of the eighth by Adam Eaton and Howie Kendrick, who launched back-to-back pitches by Pirates reliever Richard Rodríguez over the fence to turn a one-run deficit into a one-run lead.
And thanks to Wander Suero’s 1-2-3 top of the eighth just prior to that, and then Doolittle’s scoreless top of the ninth just after that, the Nationals completed a most satisfying, 3-2 victory over Pittsburgh.
The crowd of 32,103 hadn’t had much reason to cheer all day. But as word of Brooks Orpik’s overtime game-winner at Capital One Arena began to spread through the stands with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, there were a few scattered cheers. Then Eaton turned on a 3-2 pitch and sent it soaring to right field, bringing a huge roar from the assembled masses.
They didn’t have a chance to quiet down before Kendrick drilled the very next pitch from Rodríguez deep to left for the go-ahead homer.
And then they stood and applauded as Doolittle rode in on the bullpen cart, pitched around a leadoff single and stranded the tying runner on second to notch the Nationals’ first save of this wacky season.
The Nationals have featured a pretty potent lineup in the last week, but they were stymied by Archer, who some would argue shouldn’t even have been allowed to pitch today after he was suspended five games by Major League Baseball for intentionally throwing at the Reds’ Derek Dietrich in his last start. Archer, though, is appealing the suspension, and so he remains eligible to take the mound until the case is settled.
The right-hander was in peak form throughout. The Nationals had a chance to get to him early, with two on and nobody out in the first, but Anthony Rendon grounded into the first of his two double plays and then Juan Soto struck out for the first of two times against Archer.
Rendon would get some redemption in the bottom of the fourth when he led off with a double to deep right field and in the process set some club history. He’s the first Nationals player ever to record an extra-base hit in 10 consecutive games, breaking a record previously established by Ryan Zimmerman in 2009.
More importantly, Rendon came around to score the Nationals’ first run when Kurt Suzuki ripped a two-out RBI single to left. It’s Suzuki’s sixth RBI in only 20 plate appearances.
That one run was all the Nats could muster in seven innings against Archer, who had them eating out of the palm of his hand at times.
Aníbal Sánchez was nearly as good, getting through his first five innings allowing only one run (on Josh Bell’s triple past a diving Soto and Colin Moran’s RBI double in the fourth) but done in by one costly mistake in the sixth.
It’s been a recurring problem for the Nationals the last two seasons, and it happened again today: A poorly executed 0-2 pitch. Sánchez was ahead in the count against Melky Cabrera and thought he could finish the veteran off with a slider. But Cabrera pounded that breaking ball over the plate and sent it soaring into the right field bullpen.
It’s the 17th home run surrendered by Nationals pitchers with an 0-2 count since the start of last season, the most in the majors and four more than any other club.
No matter. Sánchez was otherwise outstanding for seven innings. And thanks to some late-game heroics by both the Nationals lineup and bullpen, everyone went home happy.