ARLINGTON, Texas – They can get all the quality pitching they want, which they did tonight from Paolo Espino and Co. The Nationals know it matters only if they can also get the kind of timely hitting that has eluded them too often this season, especially from the most important batters in their lineup.
So when those guys delivered tonight, when Juan Soto and Josh Bell combined to deliver the eighth-inning run that propelled the Nationals to a 2-1 victory over the Rangers, it proved a cathartic moment for everyone in the visitors’ dugout, not the least of whom were those two big sluggers.
Soto’s 110-mph double off the wall in left-center ignited the winning rally, and Bell’s subsequent RBI single to center sealed the deal and capped off a nice homecoming for the big first baseman, who grew up in nearby Irving and did everything but homer during tonight’s win.
"It was cool, just knowing I had friends and family here," said Bell, who had 30 to 40 of them in attendance tonight and expects to have even more Saturday. "Friends that played baseball with me growing up. Being able to do this in front of them makes it all that much more special."
That eighth-inning sequence, desperately needed from a Nats lineup that has mostly been held in check all week, helped make the most out of a strong performance from the pitching staff.
Espino set the tone with 5 1/3 innings of one-run ball, carrying a shutout into the sixth before tiring. Carl Edwards Jr. continued his unexpected run of brilliance out of the bullpen, recording five outs to finish the sixth and the seventh. Kyle Finnegan faced the heart of the Texas lineup in the eighth to protect a one-run lead. And Tanner Rainey, despite issuing a one-out walk and then a subsequent single that allowed the tying run to reach third base, closed out the ninth for his ninth save in 12 attempts by getting Marcus Semien to pop out and Corey Seager to fly out.
"I'd rather him not try to get out of any trouble," manager Davey Martinez said with a laugh when asked about Rainey. "But it was good. Him and Finnegan both came in and did a good job. Tough hitter he faced to get that third out, but he stayed poised and got him to fly out."
None of that would’ve mattered, though, without the top-of-the-eighth rally from the two big boys in the lineup.
Soto had been struggling through a tough night at the plate that included a double play and a strikeout. But for at least one moment, he found his classic swing, driving a changeup from Rangers reliever Dennis Santana off the wall in left-center for a leadoff double.
"He can do that. We've seen him do that. And I really believe he will do it," Martinez said. "For me, he's trying really hard, he really is. You can see it with guys on base. We've got to get him to relax and use the whole field. When he hits the ball up the middle of the field like that, he's good. ... He's going to hit. We've just got to get him to relax and not try to do too much."
Bell did have a good night at the plate from the outset, tripling in the top of the first. He added a double in the sixth, then completed his barrage with a sharp single up the middle to bring Soto home in the eighth.
"When I'm good, when I'm feeling right, good things happen," said Bell, who has gone 11 for his last 27 to raise his average to .302 and his OPS to .873. "I think that goes for everybody. In those scenarios, I don't think we make it any bigger or any smaller. I think if we're on, if we're locked in, good things are going to happen. And if we're not, then bad things are. Right now I'm feeling really good. I was able to expand the zone a little bit and hit a ground ball up the middle. I'm definitely happy to be locked in."
The pitching matchup going into the series opener wasn’t one that was going to garner headlines, but it had its own intrigue to both fan bases, nonetheless. In one corner was Espino, who briefly pitched for the Rangers in 2017 but has now found himself an unlikely home in D.C. In the other corner was Dane Dunning, who was drafted by the Nationals in 2016 but then quickly included in the blockbuster trade that brought Adam Eaton to Washington, the young right-hander now trying to establish himself as a long-term part of Texas’ rotation.
Neither right-hander has blow-you-away stuff, but that mattered not one bit on this night. They may have a hard time cracking 90 mph, but that made them no less effective than a traditional flamethrower. Using their various assortments of pitches, most of which possess a good amount of movement, the two starters kept throwing strikes, kept getting outs and kept posting zeros on the board.
"Those pitchers can be very effective," Martinez said. "The key is throwing strikes, and getting ahead. That's the key, honestly, to any pitcher, whether you throw 97 or you throw 88-89. You've got to get ahead and throw strikes."
Both teams did have early chances to break through. The Rangers put a man in scoring position in each of the first three innings, only to leave him there thanks to Espino’s best efforts. The Nationals had a runner in scoring position in the first, third and fourth innings but were done in by a combination of bad luck (Nelson Cruz’s 400-foot flyout to center), poor production (Soto and Bell’s back-to-back groundouts to kill one rally) and questionable decision-making (Gary DiSarcina waving Cruz around third on Keibert Ruiz’s single to center, leading to the club’s National League-leading 11th out made at the plate this season).
Both teams finally broke through in the sixth, in differing manners.
The Nationals got their first run of the night home thanks to a pair of doubles, first by Bell and then by Luis García, who continues to deliver in the clutch far beyond his experience level. The 22-year-old is now 8-for-23 with runners in scoring position since his call-up from Triple-A Rochester at the beginning of the month, which remarkably gives him one more hit than the far more accomplished Soto, who is a scant 7-for-55 in those situations.
The 1-0 lead was short-lived, though, because Adolis García led off the bottom of the sixth blasting a curveball from Espino into the left field bleachers to tie the game again. Espino would face two more batters before getting pulled, having still churned out a season-high 5 1/3 innings while allowing only one run and lowering his ERA to a standout 2.21.
"That's nice, but right now I'm not looking at ERA. It's too early," the journeyman right-hander said. "I mean, hopefully I end up with a 2 at the end of the season, maybe even a 1. But it's a long season. I don't look at the ERA. I'm just out there trying to give the team a chance to win every single time I go out there."