García's dramatic homer lifts Nats to another win in L.A. (updated)

LOS ANGELES – Luis García stepped into Dodger Stadium for the first time Monday night, and like many of his young teammates, was struck more than anything by the bass-thumping sound system at this venerable ballpark.

By the time he found himself rounding the bases in the top of the eighth tonight, the primary sound the Nationals shortstop heard was the chorus of boos from a sellout throng of 53,302, the largest crowd to watch a major league game this season.

García’s two-run homer, a no-doubt blast to right off left-hander Garrett Cleavinger, lifted the Nats to another improbable victory over the Dodgers, this one by the eventual count of 8-3 thanks to four tack-on runs in the ninth. Winners of three in a row, a team that had just lost 17 of 19 will return here Wednesday afternoon with a chance to sweep their first series of the year, no matter the opponent.

"You know what? I've always said this: If our starting pitchers can keep us in the game, we'll score some runs, and our bullpen's been pretty good," said manager Davey Martinez, who earned his 300th career win. "They're playing well right now, and I'm proud of the guys. Because all year long we've fallen short, but they don't quit. And I love that about them." 

It’s been impossible to watch these games the last two nights, complete with lockdown relief pitching and score-flipping homers, and not hearken back to games played between these same franchises in this same ballpark two Octobers ago. García’s homer tonight (one of the 22-year-old’s three hits in the game) certainly resembled the one Juan Soto mashed off Clayton Kershaw in Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS.

In this case, García immediately pointed to Davey Martinez after making contact before beginning his home run trot.

"He asked me before that at-bat if I wanted to face that pitcher," García said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "And I said: 'If you let me face him, I'll hit a double or a home run.'"

And why was García so confident?

"I don't know," he said with a sheepish grin. "I always have that confidence."

Nelson Cruz’s two-run double (snapping an 0-for-15 slump since the All-Star break) to extend the lead to 7-3 in the ninth and send many from that sellout crowd trudging toward the exits sure brought back memories of the exodus here after Howie Kendrick’s dramatic grand slam that all but clinched that series.

The stakes tonight couldn’t possibly compare with those, but for this team right now, this is as big as it’s going to get.

"I think a lot of the guys are just happy to be here, happy to win the series against the best team in baseball," starter Josiah Gray said. "We've come to play the last two days, in some tight games. It's a lot of fun, a boost to morale for sure. ... Hopefully it's a turning point for us."

As they did in the playoffs a lifetime ago, the Nationals have been getting standout work from their bullpen in this series. On Monday, five relievers each tossed a scoreless inning to support starter Paolo Espino. Tonight, four relievers combined to post four scoreless innings in support of Gray.

And the names of those relievers weren’t the usual ones. With Kyle Finnegan and Carl Edwards Jr. both unavailable after pitching back-to-back days, Davey Martinez turned to Jordan Weems, Erasmo Ramírez, Víctor Arano and finally Hunter Harvey to close it out with what wound up a five-run lead.

Put it all together, and the Nationals bullpen has pitched nine scoreless innings in this series.

"I wasn't worried about our bullpen if we had the lead today," Davey Martinez said. "I knew that we had guys out there capable of getting outs. And you saw that tonight. It's definitely a lot easier when you go into the ninth up a bunch of runs, but the guys threw the ball well."

For one of the few times this month, the Nationals were the early aggressors, jumping out to a 2-0 lead thanks to first-inning singles by Victor Robles (leading off for the second straight night), César Hernández and Yadiel Hernandez. It might’ve been more, though, had the big bats in the heart of the lineup (Soto, Josh Bell) not grounded out with a runner in scoring position.

This would become a recurring theme: The Nats had 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position through the first five innings alone but emerged with only two hits. And only one of those (Yadiel Hernandez’s aforementioned first-inning single) actually drove in a run.

The other was Bell’s two-out single to right in the fifth, a fine clutch hit under the circumstances but still producing a negative moment for his team because Mookie Betts quickly picked up the ball and fired a strike to the plate to nail Robles, who was trying to score from second. It wasn’t an egregious send by third base coach Gary DiSarcina. But given Betts’ reputation – the Nationals didn’t attempt to run on a fly ball to medium-deep right one inning earlier – it couldn’t have surprised anyone when the out was recorded.

Even so, Davey Martinez felt it was worth the risk in that situation.

"Two outs like that? Most definitely," the manager said. "We've got our fastest runner on the bases. He made a perfect throw."

But wouldn’t you know what happened immediately after that. Cody Bellinger led off the bottom of the fifth by blasting Gray’s first pitch deep to right for the game-tying homer. If you believe in momentum in baseball, the Dodgers clearly had seized it during that sequence.

"No, no, no," Robles insisted, with Octavio Martinez interpreting. "Until the 27th out is made, the game's not over. We keep playing, we keep working towards our goal."

They would, but not until after the Dodgers added the go-ahead run later in the fifth via Freddie Freeman’s sacrifice fly to center. So that would leave Gray on the hook for the loss, having allowed three runs on five hits over five innings.

Not that the young right-hander pitched poorly in the grand scheme of things. He opened his evening serving up a leadoff homer to Betts, but then proceeded to retire 12 of the next 15 batters, six via strikeout.

The two things that have plagued Gray throughout his nascent career, though, have been home runs and high pitch counts. And both did him in tonight. Those two homers surrendered raised his career total to 42 in 167 2/3 innings, a hefty total. And with a pitch count of 94, he was done after five innings even though he had pitched well.

"It's a matter of continuing to work ahead," Gray said. "Being competitive in the zone. I wasn't as sharp as I could be tonight, unfortunately, so the pitch count got up there early on. Some things to work on."

No problem, though, because the Nationals bullpen was there to pick him up. And so were García and his teammates in the lineup.

"It was awesome," Gray said. "Awesome to get a big team win like that."

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