Bullpen leads the way in Nats' win over Dodgers (updated)

LOS ANGELES – Juan Soto, to no one’s surprise, found himself the center of attention again today at Dodger Stadium. One week ago, the Nationals star was celebrating victory in the Home Run Derby on this very field before an appreciative crowd. Tonight, he was left to try to ignore the awkward pleas of some among the gathering of 48,647 for him to trade in his curly W for Dodger blue.

By night’s end, though, that large gathering could only trudge out of this old ballyard muttering to themselves about how Soto and his Nationals teammates had just dismantled their boys to the tune of a 4-1 victory that included clutch hits and a whole lot of dominant relief pitching by a visiting team that entered with half as many wins as their star-laden opponents.

"It gets the team a lot more excited, especially after we did what we did against the pitcher of his caliber, with those great numbers," left fielder Yadiel Hernandez said of his team's ability to hand Dodgers starter Tony Gonsolin his first loss of the season in his 18th start. "We were able to score those runs, and it creates more excitement for us to keep going and hopefully have more games like this."

Soto played his role in the Nats’ fifth-inning rally, chopping a two-run triple over first baseman Freddie Freeman’s head, but there were countless other contributors on this night, most notably the five relievers who each tossed a scoreless inning to make the win possible.

Turning to his bullpen in the fifth despite starter Paolo Espino’s success (and low pitch count), Davey Martinez asked the quintet of Andres Machado, Victor Arano, Hunter Harvey, Carl Edwards Jr. and Kyle Finnegan to close it out. And then watched as they did just that.

Machado turned in probably the biggest inning of all, replacing Espino with two on and nobody out in the fifth, then escaping the jam by striking out Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts and getting Trea Turner to line out to right.

"It's very good, because that's what we come in to do: Make an adjustment and get this hitter," Machado said. "Sometimes, we get into a situation like I came in. So when we get three outs, my family is coming up behind me, like they have my back. That's how we work out of the bullpen."

Arano posted a zero in the sixth, with Harvey following him in the seventh. Edwards got into his own jam in the eighth but got out of it by striking out Max Muncy with a nifty changeup after throwing five consecutive curveballs.

And then Kyle Finnegan, who recorded the final five outs of Sunday’s one-run win in Arizona, came back to pitch the ninth tonight and notch back-to-back saves and finish off one of the most improbable victories of the Nationals’ season.

"I say how much they've pitched well all year long," Martinez said. "And they came out today and shut out a really good team. That was awesome."

The day began in groan-worthy (if predictable) fashion, when several Los Angeles reporters hounded Soto in the visitors clubhouse and tried to get him to publicly say he expects and/or wants to be a Dodger by this time next week.

"I never think about it, because I never see myself in any of that," the young slugger said in one of several attempts to deflect the invasive line of questioning. "I’ve always been loyal to the Nationals. I’ve always been there for them. Everywhere I’m going, they try to pull me out of my team. I just keep in touch with the Nationals, because that’s where I am right now, and that’s where I’m going to be loyal until they don’t want me more here."

The L.A. pursuit of Soto continued into the game. When he stepped to the plate in the top of the first, there was moderate applause from the crowd, with a few fans going so far as to chant “Future Dodger! Future Dodger!” at the current National (not to mention one who broke those same fans’ hearts in this very ballpark less than three years ago).

It didn’t take long, though, for the locals to shift their loyalties back to the home team, which perhaps surprisingly had its hands full with the owners of the worst record in baseball.

Espino set the tone with a start that was dominant, efficient and brief. The savvy right-hander retired the first eight batters he faced on 27 pitches, and he had Trayce Thompson down 0-2 before hanging a curveball and watching it sail just over the short wall down the left field line for a 1-0 Dodgers lead.

That really was Espino’s lone mistake. Though he surrendered a leadoff double to former teammate Turner in the fourth, the "expected batting average" on that soft liner to left-center was a mere .130, making the result more a reflection of Yadiel Hernandez’s defense than Espino’s pitch.

But when he surrendered back-to-back singles to open the fifth, Espino was surprised to see Davey Martinez emerge from the dugout, asking for the ball. He had thrown only 54 pitches, and his team held a 4-1 lead, but the veteran starter was getting the hook.

"We were watching Espino closely," Martinez said. "He was starting to get the ball up a little. So in that group of hitters, we thought Machado was the right guy. And he came in and did a great job."

"I was hoping I was going to be able to go deeper in the game," Espino said. "But at the same time, I understand the situation. We haven't been winning many games, and I kind of got in trouble that inning. ... Surprised? Maybe a little bit, because I felt like I was pitching good enough to keep going. I was feeling good, too. But that's how it is. I can't control that."

The Nationals achieved that lead with one of their best sustained rallies in a long time, plating all four runs in the top of the fifth. Hernandez got it started with an opposite-field homer off Tony Gonsolin, atoning for his defensive deficiencies the prior inning. Ehire Adrianza, Victor Robles (batting leadoff for the first time this year) and César Hernández then delivered three consecutive two-out singles to give the Nats the lead.

"I think it just creates a lot more excitement in that dugout," Yadiel Hernandez said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Obviously any big hit, especially if it's a home run ... it's going to get the guys a lot more excited about the game."

And when Soto hit a high chopper just over first base and watched it roll all the way down the line for a two-run triple, the Nationals had themselves a 4-1 lead they could now entrust to their bullpen.

Who knew that group would proceed to keep the Dodgers’ high-powered lineup stuck on one run the rest of the night?

"It's awesome," Espino said. "They definitely deserve all the good stuff. They've been doing it for a long time, and they definitely deserve to have that success. So I'm very, very happy with it."

Lack of win doesn't diminish Espino's strong start
Robles to get another crack at leading off
 

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