An inordinate amount of the Nationals’ offensive production this season has come via the bats (and the eyes) of Juan Soto and Josh Bell. Together, those two have accounted for 23 percent of the team’s hits, 28 percent of their runs, 42 percent of their walks and 43 percent of their homers.
So, imagine what this lineup would look like in August and September should Soto and Bell no longer be wearing curly W helmets at the plate. Actually, don’t imagine it. It’s too depressing.
Instead, just appreciate whatever time remains with these two larger-than-life sluggers batting back-to-back in Davey Martinez’s lineup. Just as a boisterous crowd of 34,440 did tonight as Soto and Bell helped lead the Nationals to a 7-6, come-from-behind win over the Cardinals.
Soto did his usual thing, reaching base four times (thrice via walks, once via single). And Bell did the thing he’s done regularly in his 1 1/2 years in D.C.: Deliver a big hit in a big moment, belting a three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh to give his team the lead and elicit a roar from the crowd.
"Awesome. And well-deserved," Martinez said. "I'm not going to think about what's going to happen in the next few days. I just know that today was a great win for us, and he was a big part of it."
That all this came less than 72 hours before Tuesday’s 6 p.m. trade deadline – a deadline that is almost certainly going to see Bell be dealt and could see Soto depart as well – added a bittersweet angle to the proceedings. Still, those who were here to watch tonight’s contest didn’t hold back in appreciating the performances of two of the only reasons to consistently watch this team in 2022.
"That's probably one of my favorite things that happen in a game, when we get a late, go-ahead home run," closer Kyle Finnegan said. "Because the bullpen goes nuts. You're going crazy, and then you're like: 'Oh, one of us (needs to warm up). The situation's changing now.' It's a huge wave of excitement, and then it's right back to being locked in. That's what happened tonight, and we were fired up down there."
Bell’s blast proved to be the biggest moment of the night. Stepping to the plate in the seventh after Jordan Hicks plunked César Hernández and Génesis Cabrera walked Soto, the cleanup man (who had been 0-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts to that point) drove an 0-1 changeup from the Cardinals lefty to right-center field. And when the ball cleared the out-of-town scoreboard for a three-run homer, the crowd roared with approval as Bell rounded the bases.
"It was awesome," said Bell, who added he'd gotten a good scouting report on Cabrera from Nelson Cruz moments before. "It was the best crowd we've had here in a long time. Hopefully, we can use that momentum going into tomorrow."
There haven’t been many of these moments during this otherwise miserable season. And there may not be many more if Soto and Bell are dealt away in the coming days.
There also may not be many more high-wire escape acts like the one Finnegan provided tonight if the Nationals trade their recently promoted closer to an interested contender. Just as he did last weekend in Arizona, manager Davey Martinez summoned Finnegan with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth and watched him get out of the jam (albeit with one run scoring this time, on a sacrifice fly).
"I tried to do what I did last time: The ol' one-pitcher," he said with a laugh. "It didn't work out that way. It sucks giving up another bullpen pitcher's run there, for sure. But that's almost a trade you'll make there for the out."
Finnegan then returned to pitch the ninth and finish off what was now a one-run victory for his fourth save (third in a row since replacing the injured Tanner Rainey).
With scheduled starter Erick Fedde landing on the 15-day injured list with shoulder inflammation, Paolo Espino had his assignment bumped up a day, albeit still on full rest, thanks to the team’s off-day following its recent West Coast trip. The 35-year-old right-hander, who admitted he had some advance notice he might be starting this game, wound up having a typical night by his standards. Which is to say he pitched well for the most part but was done in by a couple of critical mistakes.
Espino made two mistakes, really, during his 4 2/3-inning start. The first was a 3-1 fastball up and over the plate to Nolan Arenado, who mashed it to left for a solo homer in the top of the second. The second was a 1-1 fastball over the plate to Paul DeJong, who belted it into the left field bullpen for a two-run homer in the top of the fifth.
Espino would be charged with one more run, this one scoring via Corey Dickerson’s sacrifice fly. He saw his ERA rise from 3.48 to 3.78, and he still finds himself searching for his first win of the season.
"I don't know if they're just making adjustments," he said. "I can also say I'm making a few mistakes. But every now and then, you make some mistakes, you get away with it. I mean, lately it seems like every time I make that one mistake, I'm not getting away with it. I need to figure out what's going on late in the game. Because I feel like early in the game, I'm going through everything pretty good."
The Nationals did get their starter off the hook for his fourth loss, though, thanks to a long-awaited rally in the bottom of the fifth that tied the game.
Victor Robles’ solo homer in the third (his second in a week) got them on the board, but otherwise the Nats couldn’t muster anything against Cardinals starter Dakota Hudson, in spite of his hefty pitch count (83 in only 4 1/3 innings). They finally broke through, though, against the first man out of the St. Louis bullpen: left-hander Packy Naughton.
Naughton entered specifically to face Soto, who immediately lined his first pitch to left-center for a single. Naughton would strike out Bell, but Cruz followed with his second clutch hit this week: a two-out, two-run double to the warning track down the right field line. And when Yadiel Hernandez followed that with an RBI single up the middle, the game was tied 4-4 and the large Saturday night crowd was hopping.
As it turns out, that was merely a precursor for what was still to come before night’s end.
"A win's a win," Bell said. "Big league W's are hard to come by. You all missed it, but the atmosphere in this clubhouse after that win was pretty electric. Hopefully, we can share the same experience some more."