CHICAGO – Even in this most miserable week of a most miserable summer of a most miserable baseball season, there can be individual ballgames that feature enough back-and-forth drama to remind you why you love this silly game in the first place.
There was nothing of consequence at stake tonight when the Nationals and Cubs met in the middle game of their three-game series. But try telling any of the 37,193 who packed themselves into Wrigley Field on a spectacular, 68-degree summer evening, or anyone wearing either team’s uniform, that this meant nothing.
No, this game between fellow last-place clubs turned into a real barnburner, the Nats taking an early lead, then giving it back, then taking it back before finally hanging on for a well-earned, 6-5 victory to snap a six-game losing streak.
"That's what we need," said Carl Edwards Jr., the former Cub who wound up closing tonight's game with a four-out save. "We need that to show we can come back fighting and close out a game like this, where we had a home run to put us over the edge. Going on the rest of the year, I think this will be a highlight. I think this might start something."
There were several heroes, but the biggest one was a guy who wasn’t even here a week ago. Joey Meneses, the 30-year-old career minor leaguer who finally got his first promotion seven days ago after the Nationals traded Juan Soto and Josh Bell to the Padres, launched his third big league homer, a two-run shot to left in the top of the eighth to flip the Cubs’ one-run lead into a one-run lead for the Nationals.
As he trotted around the bases for the second time in 24 hours, Meneses certainly didn’t care that these two teams are as far out of a pennant race as possible in early August.
"It's what I've dreamed about," he said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "From the minor leagues, all the years I spent down there just dreaming to get up here, dreaming of this moment. I'll just keep working and take advantage of this opportunity that I was given up here."
Meneses' homer gave the Nats the lead again, but they needed six outs from a patchwork bullpen to secure the win. They got the first two from Andres Machado, then the final four from Edwards, the former Cubs setup man who struck out his old batterymate Willson Contreras to escape a jam in the eighth and then returned for the ninth for his first save of the season, only the fourth of his career.
"I mean, he caught me for six, seven years," Edwards said of Contreras. "So he knows what I'm going to get him out with. I just had to trust myself and trust that my curveball would be the pitch to get him."
Edwards wound up closing because Davey Martinez made what seemed the smart play earlier by pitching Kyle Finnegan in the bottom of the seventh with a two-run lead and two runners on base. But during a torturous inning of baseball, Chicago scored four runs on seven hits, each of them a single, five of them to right field, to take a 5-4 lead.
"It seemed like for five batters in a row, they went first to third," Martinez said. "But they put the ball in play. ... I told him: 'Keep your head up. Just one of those days.' "
Finnegan gave up four of the singles, each of them finding grass in front of Meneses in right field, three of them scoring runs. The one batter he retired during that stretch, Ian Happ, lined out sharply to center field, with Lane Thomas then making a perfect throw to Keibert Ruiz, who just tagged Rafael Ortega on the back for what looked like it would be a game-saving double play for the Nats.
Instead, that web gem was reduced to footnote status at the end of a frustrating night for the Nationals, who got five strong innings from starter Paolo Espino and the first two-homer game of Ruiz’s career long before the late-game drama.
The Nats had taken a 4-1 lead thanks to Ruiz’s pair of homers in his first two at-bats. The young catcher, to the delight of a coaching staff that has been preaching him to do this, turned on a couple of inside pitches and launched them to right field for his fifth and sixth home runs of the season, accounting for all four runs.
"Obviously, I want to hit homers," Ruiz said. "I want to be better with my offense. But I've just got to control what I can control and keep working hard every day."
Ruiz’s power display gave the Nationals the early lead they’ve been seeking for weeks, but Espino then did his part to make sure it held up as long as he was in the game.
The veteran right-hander allowed just one run over his five innings, via Seiya Suzuki’s leadoff homer in the bottom of the second. Otherwise, he minimized damage while keeping his pitch count relatively low. He did so by inducing swings and misses, leading to five strikeouts to match his season high.
And when he got Suzuki to line out to left to strand two runners on base in a big spot, Espino walked off the mound having turned in five innings of one-run ball on 86 pitches. That may not meet the traditional definition of a quality start, but for this team at this time, it certainly counted.
"I definitely feel good that everything was working out from the beginning," Espino said. "I think I did a good job keeping the team fighting for that win. Unfortunately, some of the bullpen guys weren't able to get the job done. But they've been doing an awesome job the whole time. ... At the end of the day, the offense just took us to that win. That was really nice and awesome."