One-plus months into this season, Davey Martinez’s offensive philosophy has become pretty well established, certainly when it comes to his regular 8-9-1 hitters: If CJ Abrams gets on base and there’s an opportunity to play for one run, Victor Robles and/or Alex Call will probably be asked to bunt.
It happened twice tonight, in both the third and fifth innings, and the end result of all that was one run. One that was made possible only because of an error on Robles’ sacrifice bunt attempt in the third.
As such, when Abrams, Robles and Call came back to the plate in the bottom of the seventh, this game was now tied. This time, each was allowed to swing away. And lo and behold, would you guess what happened next? Each delivered a clutch hit, combining to drive in three runs and propel the Nationals to a cathartic, 4-1 victory over the Cubs.
"It's nice to bunt, but you think about giving up outs," Martinez said when asked what made the strategy in the seventh different from the third and fifth. "At that particular moment in the seventh, I said: Hey man, we need to put some runs on the board. And they're swinging the bats well. So you give them a chance to swing. And they came through, which was awesome."
Abrams’ single to right, which brought Dominic Smith home from second, provided the go-ahead RBI. Robles’ infield single, a sharp chopper to third that ate up Patrick Wisdom, kept the rally going. And Call’s double to the gap in left-center brought both of his teammates home and provided the entire dugout reason to celebrate a three-run rally.
"It's straight joy and happiness," Call said. "And a lot of fun, because the guys are going crazy. Obviously, any time you win or have a big hit, that's why you play. A lot of fun."
Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan took care of the rest, and the Nationals walked away with a much-needed win, thanks to the kind of late-inning offensive heroics that have been far too lacking to date this season.
They'll try to keep it going Wednesday with 26-year-old right-hander Jake Irvin on the mound for his major league debut. Irvin, a fourth-round pick in the 2018 draft, will be called up from Triple-A to make the start, with Cory Abbott optioned to Rochester to clear a roster spot for him.
"His last outing, he pitched really well," Martinez said of Irvin, who allowed two runs in 5 1/3 innings one week ago. "He's stretched out to about 90 pitches. So we're going to give him an opportunity come out here and start for us tomorrow, and see what he does and see where he goes."
The Nationals were in a position where they needed some late offense tonight because of their inability to execute small ball earlier in the evening. They took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the third on Luis García’s RBI single up the middle, but they had opportunities to do more than that. Alas, they were yet again done in by their inability to produce in the clutch … when they were actually given the opportunity to swing away.
Twice in the game’s first five innings, Abrams singled to jump-start a potential rally. And in each case, one of the next two hitters who followed tried to advance him via bunt, neither of which was well executed.
Robles’ sacrifice attempt in the third was struck too hard and would’ve resulted in Abrams getting thrown out at second if not for Eric Hosmer bobbling the ball, allowing everyone to be safe. That ultimately set up Garcia’s RBI single.
Two innings later, Robles was given the rare opportunity to swing away, and he responded by ripping a single to left that advanced Abrams all the way to third. But what should’ve been a golden opportunity to add to the lead instead devolved into disaster. With runners on the corners and one out, Call was given the sign to put down a safety squeeze. The ball barely squirted in front of the plate, allowing Tucker Barnhart to pick it up and fire back to third, where Abrams was narrowly tagged out (a call that stood after the Nats challenged it).
"I wasn't able to execute," Call said. "It was probably a little bit too high for me to try to bunt, and it went straight in front of the plate. That's just the way it goes. I know I'm a good bunter. I'm confident in my abilities there. I'll get it down the next time."
Their momentum now gone, the Nationals failed to score and were left to try to make a 1-0 lead hold up. That, as one might imagine, isn’t so easy.
Trevor Williams did his part, posting five straight zeros, allowing three singles, a double and nothing else. The right-hander had success sticking to a fairly simple pitching plan: Fastballs up and changeups down. It worked, allowing him to take the mound in the sixth still leading by that one lone run.
"Going into the game, that was Plan A," Williams said. "And thankfully, we stuck with it, even into the third time through the lineup. (Catcher Keibert Ruiz) and I were on the same page, and it was something we were able to execute and move forward with."
Then came perhaps Martinez’s toughest call of the night. After Dansby Swanson drove a ball to the warning track to open the sixth, the Nationals manager emerged from the dugout and walked to the mound. He did not, however, ask for the ball. After a brief conversation, Martinez returned to the dugout, Williams remaining on the mound.
"I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to see how he was feeling," the manager said. "That's exactly what I did. And he said he felt great. 'I think I can get this guy out.' And I said: 'OK, man. This game's all yours. Let's go.'"
But after the starter proceeded to walk Ian Happ on four pitches, Martinez was right back out there, this time required to make a pitching change. Carl Edwards Jr. entered from the bullpen and flirted with major disaster, loading the bases with one out. But he battled back to strike out Trey Mancini with a full-count changeup, then got Hosmer to pop up and escape the jam.
Mason Thompson entered a far less-imposing situation, getting a clean top of the seventh to himself. The big right-hander immediately served up a homer to Wisdom, though, knotting the game at 1-1.
Fortunately for Thompson, the Nationals still had a rally in them, thanks in large part to their manager’s willingness to let his 8-9-1 hitters swing away.
"It's big," Abrams said. "We're swinging the bats. The pitchers are doing a great job as well. Just keeping rolling."