As the baseball world turns to tonight’s Major League Baseball Draft and the upcoming All-Star Game festivities, there were still games to be played today before the close of the season’s unofficial first half.
For the Nationals, that meant going for a series win against the first-place Rangers before they make the second overall pick later tonight.
It’s been a tough week – and to a greater extent month – for the Nats on South Capitol Street. Entering today’s finale, they had lost 15 of their last 17 home games, last night’s 8-4 win being one of the two exceptions.
But after losing six straight at home after Friday, the Nationals now enter the All-Star break as the winners of two straight with this afternoon’s 7-2 victory over the Rangers in front of 17,547 fans in attendance.
“Well, it's a good way to finish off. Boys played well," manager Davey Martinez said after the game. "It was good. You're playing a team that's got some horses over there. To come out the way we did the last two games was awesome. These guys, I'm proud of the way they're playing and the way they played."
Following yesterday’s offensive outburst, the Nats put up crooked numbers in back-to-back innings to put away the Rangers and win their first home series since May 19-21 against the Tigers.
After four scoreless innings, Dominic Smith got the scoring started with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the fifth. The veteran first baseman hit a first-pitch 91 mph sinker from Rangers starter (and former Nats first-round pick) Dane Dunning 406 feet into the right-center field bleachers for his fifth longball of the season and a 1-0 lead.
“He was pitching well up until that point," Smith said. "He wasn’t making too many mistakes, so I just wanted to be ready for any mistake. Something that our offense talks about a lot: Being ready for some mistakes. So I was ready for it, put a good swing on it and it went out today. Got the rally started and we were able to finish it off.”
Lane Thomas then drove in Alex Call to make it 2-0 by inning’s end.
The rallies continued in the fifth as Keibert Ruiz hit a double to left field with one out to put a runner into scoring position. And then with two outs, Smith was hit by a pitch to end Dunning’s afternoon. Luis García, facing D.C. native Josh Sborz who was pitching at Nats Park for the first time, hit an infield single to load the bases.
The Nationals have struggled with the bases loaded, but the clutch hits finally came today. Call drove in two with a single up the middle. Since his recall from Triple-A Rochester earlier this week, Call is 6-for-16 (.375) with two home runs, five RBIs, three walks and two stolen bases.
“Just trusting what I've worked on," Call said. "And then get a good pitch and don't try to do too much. I know who I am as a player and I know that if I trust in myself and what I know that I'm capable of, it will work eventually. And so it's just finding that right groove, which has been nice to be in that for a little bit.”
CJ Abrams followed with an RBI single to center and stole second to put two runners into scoring position with a 5-1 lead. Since getting moved up to the leadoff spot on Friday, Abrams is 6-for-12 (.500) with a run, RBI, walk and three stolen bases.
“I think he's just not chasing, getting the ball in the zone, staying on top of the baseball and just trying to get on base for us," Martinez said of Abrams' success in the leadoff spot. "That was the conversation I had with him and he's done well.”
Joey Meneses, perhaps the Nats’ hottest hitter heading into the break, went yard yet again in the seventh. His sixth of the season and fourth of this series traveled 407 feet to center field and was 104 mph off his bat. He has been working to get the ball in the air more. It’s been working.
Meneses finished this series 5-for-11 with a double, four homers and five RBIs and a walk.
“Stay in the middle of the field," Martinez said of Meneses. "That's been key for us. Not trying to do too much, get the ball in the strike zone, but really just trying to focus on just staying in the middle of the field and putting a good piece of the bat on the ball. So it was a good day. Joey once again, the home run, oppo. He's starting to understand how to use his legs again. Hopefully, he has a monster second half for us.”
After Meneses’ homer, Stone Garrett, who came in as a defensive replacement for Corey Dickerson in the top of the inning, followed with his sixth homer of the year to make it 7-1. Facing Sborz, Garrett deposited an 0-2 slider into the visiting bullpen for his first homer off a right-hander this year.
The run support was greatly appreciated by Patrick Corbin, who didn’t really need it.
The veteran left-hander was all over the Rangers hitters from the start. He began his outing by striking out the side in the first on 12 pitches, 10 strikes, with the putaway pitches coming on a sinker, slider and slider.
“I felt good," Corbin said. "I think the main thing is getting ahead of some of these guys, quality pitches. Got some strikeouts early and then just was around the zone. Got them to expand a little bit and got some weak contact.”
Corbin was perfect the first time through the lineup. He didn’t surrender his first baserunners until there was one out in the fourth, back-to-back singles by Corey Seager and Josh Jung. But he came right back to record the next two outs.
The only run scored on Corbin came in the sixth when Marcus Semien led off with a double to left and then scored on Adolis García’s RBI single.
“His fastball was good location," Martinez said. "His slider was really good early on. Really good. I think that was the big difference that once he established his slider, then the fastball played in. But when he gets ahead, he's really good. That one inning he started getting the ball up a little bit. I was a little bit concerned. But then he settled back down and started throwing strikes again down in the zone.”
For the second time in his last three starts, Corbin completed seven strong innings. He allowed only the run on five hits and one walk while striking out six on an efficient 91 pitches, 60 strikes.
Corbin enters the All-Star break 6-10 with a 4.89 ERA and 1.546 WHIP. Though not frontline starter stuff anymore, that is still a far better first half than the Nats have seen in recent years.
“Some ups and downs for sure," he said. "But I like where I'm at now and just focused on that moving forward. Just try to be as consistent as I can and come back after the break ready to go.”
The Rangers put up another run in the eighth against Jose A. Ferrer, but otherwise, it was too little, too late for the American League West leaders.
“We're excited," Call said. "It's fun to come in and win a series at home against a good team. Momentum going into the break and now we can relax for a few days. Get some momentum moving into the second half and see what happens. Just want to continue to play good baseball and good team ball overall.”
Meanwhile, the Nationals finished the first half 36-54. That puts them on pace for 65 wins this season, which would be a 10-game improvement from last year.
“It's awesome because we have three of our young pitchers in the rotation," Martinez said. "Pretty young bullpen. Some of our young guys are getting better, they're stepping up. Keibert, Luis, CJ and I still consider Lane young because he really hasn't played much. But these guys were all learning and they're getting better. I know in the future we're still getting some of these really young kids. Start adding little pieces here and there. We're gonna compete. We're gonna compete to get in those playoffs again. But this group is the stepping stone right now, so it's been fun.”
Now it’s time for the draft. Who do the Nats take at No. 2?