SAN DIEGO – The Nationals walked into Petco Park this evening and stepped right into a pennant race. No, the outcome of this weekend’s four-game series means nothing in the grand scheme to the team with the majors’ worst record, but try telling the 26 guys dressed in navy blue jerseys and curly W caps it meant nothing to go toe-to-toe with a star-studded Padres club that’s all-in on the 2022 season and desperately wanted to emerge victorious in tonight’s series opener.
And at night’s end, it wasn’t the home team celebrating victory, but rather the plucky visitors, who hung around for eight innings and then scratched across two runs against closer Josh Hader in the ninth to pull off a gutsy 3-1 win before a stunned sellout crowd of 41,820.
"This is what builds character," manager Davey Martinez said. "These guys were all jacked up. They were pumped up. Nobody was sitting there from the seventh through the ninth inning. All those guys were up on the fence, standing, cheering. It's awesome. This is what you play for: To play these kinds of games."
Stymied for eight innings by Yu Darvish, the Nationals finally broke through in the top of the ninth. They got singles from César Hernández and Alex Call (who replaced Yadiel Hernandez late after the left fielder's calf cramped up). That forced San Diego manager Bob Melvin to pull his starter to a standing ovation and summon Hader to try to keep the game tied.
Instead, Hader poured more gasoline on the fire and dealt Darvish the loss. The flamethrowing lefty hit former Padre Luke Voit with a 2-2 slider on the foot to load the bases, then walked Nelson Cruz on four pitches to force in the go-ahead run. And when Keibert Ruiz ripped a line drive to left for a sacrifice fly, the Nats had themselves an insurance run and a two-run lead.
Kyle Finnegan, the Nationals’ fifth reliever of the game, walked two batters in the bottom of the ninth but still found a way to close out a combined three-hitter and secure an emotionally charged win for his team and deal the contending Padres a tough blow.
"We had some moments where, man, they clutched up and got some big hitters out," Martinez said of his relievers.
A taut pitchers’ duel between Darvish and Aníbal Sánchez played out for five innings before Martinez turned to his bullpen, which now had to keep matching the zeroes Darvish was posting by overwhelming everyone in the Nationals lineup not named Ildemaro Vargas.
Just when it looked like the Padres would break through in the bottom of the seventh, a surprise fireman emerged from the Nats pen. Víctor Arano, summoned by Martinez with one on and one out, wound up loading the bases but then struck out Trent Grisham and Juan Soto in succession to escape the bases-loaded jam. After blowing away Soto with a high, 96-mph fastball to end the inning, Arano screamed in delight as Soto slammed his bat and helmet to the ground in disgust, creating the emotional high point of the night.
"Motivational," Arano said of his critical encounter with Soto, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "To face a hitter of that kind of caliber, and to be able to get the job done, I was very excited and happy to do so."
Jake McGee, Hunter Harvey and Carl Edwards Jr. also made it through their respective appearances without allowing the go-ahead run to score, sending the game into the ninth still knotted at 1-1.
These two wily veteran starters had already squared off against each other five days ago in D.C., with Sánchez allowing two solo homers but otherwise minimizing damage over five strong innings, and Darvish putting up five straight zeroes before serving up back-to-back homers to Yadiel Hernandez and Joey Meneses in the sixth.
Both right-handers were outstanding from the get-go tonight, each retiring the first eight batters they faced before someone finally reached base. In Sánchez’s case, that was a two-out walk of Austin Nola in the bottom of the third. In Darvish’s case, it was a big blast from an unlikely source.
In 451 major league plate appearances spread across parts of six seasons with the Diamondbacks, Twins, Cubs, Pirates and Nationals, Vargas hit nine home runs (six of those coming in 2019 with Arizona). The 180-pound utility infielder doesn’t look like a power hitter, but when he connected on a 1-0 cutter from Darvish in the top of the third and launched it 398 feet to right field, it looked as impressive as any ball hit by any of the sport’s big-name sluggers.
"Absolutely very, very exciting," Vargas said, also with Octavio Martinez interpreting. "Especially against a great pitcher like Yu Darvish. It makes me very happy. I'm just in the moment, enjoying my career and the way it's going. I just want to live in the moment and enjoy it as much as I can."
Called up from Triple-A Rochester at the beginning of the month when Ehire Adrianza was traded to the Braves, Vargas has quietly turned into the Nats’ everyday third baseman and a legitimately productive player. He entered the night batting .314 (13-for-41) and upped that average to .349 with hits in his first two at-bats, all the while playing clean defense to help shore up what has been a problem area all season.
The Nationals needed Vargas’ production tonight, because they sure weren’t getting it from anybody else. Darvish didn’t let anybody else in the lineup reach base against him until Lane Thomas’ infield single in the eighth (and that came about only after a reversed call on replay review), preventing them from ever mounting any kind of sustained rally.
Fortunately for the Nats, Sánchez was just as effective. Though he issued two walks, neither proved costly. He effectively utilized his infield’s shift to retire Josh Bell, Jake Cronenworth and Soto on hard-hit grounders. Vargas and new shortstop CJ Abrams (making his return to Petco Park) both made strong plays in the field as well.
Manny Machado did take advantage of a 3-0 green light in the bottom of the fourth to blast a solo homer off Sánchez and tie the game at 1-1. But that’s the only hit Sánchez surrendered during five standout innings. And with the top of the Padres lineup due up for the sixth, Martinez didn’t take any chances and turned to his bullpen right there, thanking Sánchez for a job well done.
"I think today was the first time the whole year I was able to throw every single pitch in any spot," said Sánchez, who remains winless in seven starts but lowered his ERA from 7.20 to 6.43. "When I'm able to do that, I can get those kind of games."