Bottom of lineup, bullpen bring end to losing streak (updated)

Salvation for the Nationals came not from Juan Soto or Josh Bell. It came not from Josiah Gray or Keibert Ruiz or Luis García. It did not come from any member of their rotation.

No, when the Nats needed to put a stop to a pair of nine-game losing streaks – one of them overall, one of them specifically to the Braves – they turned to the bottom of their lineup and five members of their bullpen.

Yes, it’s true. The Nationals won a ballgame today, toppling the Braves 7-3 to close a wretched final stretch of a wretched first half of the season on an uplifting note at last. 

"It's been a long time," Soto said with a laugh, "but finally we did it."

The formula to produce this curly W bore no resemblance to the one they used to try to win any other game in the last week-plus.

Sure, Soto did chime in with a late home run – his 20th of the season, extending his career-best on-base streak to 26 games – but that was the cherry on top of the sundae this afternoon. The rest of the team’s offensive production came from the likes of Maikel Franco, Ehire Adrianza and Victor Robles.

And the pitching production came from the likes of Erasmo Ramirez, Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr., Andres Machado and Kyle Finnegan, none of whom surrendered a run during a bullpen game necessitated by a rainout and subsequent doubleheader against the Mariners earlier in the week.

"Our bullpen has been a bright spot this year," manager Davey Martinez said. "We want to continue to get them going and keep them the way they are right now."

The honor of starting today’s game went to Ramirez, the pitcher in this bullpen most capable of throwing more than two innings. Which is exactly what he did, posting three zeros on the scoreboard to set a positive tone for the proceedings.

Martinez might have been tempted to keep Ramirez out there longer, but the 32-year-old right-hander had just thrown 30 pitches on Friday, so he was done after 39 more today. Which (based on the sport’s archaic rulebook) left him ineligible to qualify for the win, even if he was his team’s most effective pitcher.

"The most important thing is don't think about it," Ramirez said of his role starting a bullpen game. "Execute and just think that every pitch counts. From the first pitch to the last pitch, make sure you make it count. And today was good execution, good communication with the catcher. And we got good defense, good pitching and we got the win."

Ramirez departed with a 4-0 lead intact, thanks to a rare display of sustained production from the bottom of the Nationals lineup. With Nelson Cruz still sidelined due to a tight quadriceps muscle, Franco became DH for the day and Adrianza got an opportunity to start at third. Both paid dividends.

Adrianza’s two-out, two-run single in the bottom of the second scored Bell and Franco and gave the Nats their first lead of any size in a week. (They last were ahead 3-2 from the sixth to the eighth innings last Sunday in Atlanta.)

Moments later, Robles blasted a 98-mph fastball from Spencer Strider deep to left for only his second homer of the season and a 4-0 lead that actually gave the home crowd reason to cheer for the first time in a long time.

"I mentioned it a couple days ago, but he's had some better swings," Martinez said. "The ball's coming off his bat now. He's been working really hard with (hitting coach Darnell Coles) trying to hit the ball out front, stay back, and you can see the results."

Martinez entrusted that four-run lead, not to mention the heart of the Atlanta lineup, to Jordan Weems as the first arm out of the bullpen following Ramirez. The rookie right-hander, though, would depart having retired only one of the five batters he faced (on a sacrifice fly, nonetheless) and allowing three runs to score to turn a four-read lead into a 4-3 nailbiter.

Things proceeded swimmingly after that, though, with Cishek recording five outs and Edwards Jr. recording six big outs (escaping a bases-loaded jam in the seventh) to get the game into the late innings with the lead intact.

A lead that was extended, by the way, thanks to more production from the bottom of the lineup. Adrianza came through with a run-scoring groundout in the fourth for his third RBI of the day. Franco later came through with a two-out RBI single in the sixth to put his team up 6-3.

"It's a big difference," Adrianza said of the bottom-of-the-lineup production. "Because I think everybody thinks the bottom part of the lineup is pretty weak. But thank God Robles and I came through today and gave us that win today."

So it was the Nationals found themselves in a most unfamiliar position. For the first time in a week, they were leading late. And thanks to a couple more zeros from Machado and Finnegan, for the first time in 11 days they got the opportunity to celebrate a win before heading their separate ways for an All-Star break they desperately need.

"It's awesome to see those guys smiling and playing music and jumping up and down," Martinez said. "Let's make it a habit."

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