MILWAUKEE – There's no question at the end of this weekend which of the two ballclubs that competed at American Family Field is headed for the postseason and which is headed home for October. The Brewers looked the part of a first-place team. The Nationals looked the part of a last-place team.
And yet every one of these games was there for the Nats to take. They just couldn’t find a way to take any of them in key, late moments. Until they finally did what they needed to do in the most critical moments this afternoon to pull out one victory at last.
Unable to convert on countless scoring opportunities throughout the game, the Nationals finally came through in the top of the 11th and escaped with a 2-1 victory over Milwaukee. In the process, they snapped a five-game losing streak and avoided falling to 20 games under .500 with only 12 left to play this season.
"Just a great win," manager Davey Martinez said. "The guys battled. We battled yesterday, and we're in a lot of these games. To finish a series like this, against a really good team, it feels gratifying."
This was shaping up to be an incredibly frustrating afternoon. The Nationals led 1-0 in the sixth, then gave up the tying run. They were in prime position to re-take the lead in the eighth, then blew that opportunity. They stranded a runner on second in the top of the ninth. They stranded a runner on third in the top of the 10th. They finished 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
They did not, however, strand anyone in the 11th. Lane Thomas advanced automatic runner CJ Abrams to third with a fly ball to right. And though Joey Meneses’ subsequent fly ball to center was quite shallow, third base coach Gary DiSarcina opted for the aggressive send and was rewarded for it when Sal Frelick’s throw sailed wide and Abrams crossed the plate with the go-ahead run.
"Joey did a great job of just staying in the middle of the field and hitting the ball in the air," Martinez said. "We had the right guy running at third base, as well."
Taking the reins after Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan combined for three scoreless innings of relief before him, Robert Garcia got himself out of a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the 10th. The left-hander returned for the bottom of the 11th and watched as Michael Chavis pulled off a dramatic double play to end the game.
With runners on first and third and one out, Chavis (who took over first base after pinch-running for Dominic Smith earlier) made a diving stop of Rowdy Tellez’s hot shot down the line, stepped on the bag for out No. 2 and then fired to the plate, where Drew Millas ran down William Contreras to complete a wild, 3-2 double play that allowed the Nationals to celebrate a hard-earned win.
"Chavis made a hell of a play," said Garcia, who wound up earning his first career win because of it. "As soon as he got the ball and tagged the bag, my initial reaction was: 'Oh, he's going to go to second.' And then I realized where the runner was at third base. ... It happened really quick, and then it was: Boom! Boom! OK, we're done! First win. It was nice."
"Baseball's funny, man," said Chavis, who struck out to end the top of the inning. "It would be so easy, after that last at-bat, to be like: 'Dang, that sucks.' And not let it go, and let it affect you on defense and not be totally focused. So it's really cool that I was able to flip it and go help the team that way."
The Nationals nearly lost this game in the bottom of the ninth, when Finnegan put two runners on and then watched them successfully steal their way to second and third. But the faltering closer, who gave up a killer grand slam during Saturday night’s loss, bounced back to get Josh Donaldson and Andruw Monasterio and strand the winning run on third, sending this one to extras.
This road trip began six days ago in Pittsburgh, with Patrick Corbin on the mound hoping to set a positive tone for the entire pitching staff. He did just that, allowing two runs over 6 2/3 innings while striking out eight and leading the Nationals to victory.
Not that anyone else picked up where he left off. Each of the Nats’ next five starters struggled, the end result a five-game losing streak that left the team desperate for a bounceback performance today before everyone heads back to D.C. for the final homestand of the year.
Corbin held up his end of the bargain, doing exactly what he did against the Pirates. He let the first two batters he faced reach in the bottom of the first but escaped unharmed. Then he went to work and never allowed multiple runners to reach base in the same inning again.
Corbin helped himself by starting a pair of 1-4-3 double plays, the second of which left him returning to the dugout at the end of the fifth with a 4.98 ERA. The significance of that? It represented the lowest his ERA has stood in September since the end of the abbreviated 2020 season.
"I feel good. The last two, our team has won those games," Corbin said. "I'm just trying to continue that. I probably have a couple more left. Just always looking to finish strong, and hopefully as a team we do that as well."
The Nationals staked Corbin to a lead, though it was by the slimmest of margins. Brandon Woodruff had no trouble with eight members of the opposing lineup, but he could not get the ninth man out. Luis García, on the heels of his best game in months Saturday night, kept it going this afternoon with an opposite-field homer off Woodruff in the top of the second.
García also singled and stole second in the top of the fifth, proving to Martinez he could sustain success game to game after his manager verbally sought for that after Saturday’s loss. Alas, nobody else could do anything. Thomas, who doubled with two outs in the sixth, was the only other player to reach base against Woodruff, who completed six innings on 106 pitches and lowered his ERA to a sparkling 1.89.
With no margin for error, Corbin got himself into something resembling a jam in the bottom of the sixth, allowing a leadoff single to Mark Canha and then allowing him to steal second. With his best hitters coming to the plate, Craig Counsell could’ve gone after a big inning. Instead, the Brewers manager played for one run. Which is exactly what he got, with William Contreras bunting Canha to third and then Carlos Santana bringing him home on a sacrifice fly.
That tying run brought Corbin’s ERA back up to 5.00 on the button, and that’s where it will remain until his next start, Martinez entrusting the rest of this game to a bullpen that struggled Saturday night but delivered when it needed to today.
"He's been pitching a lot better," Martinez said. "He knew what he had to do today, and he gave us six strong innings. That was awesome. Moving forward, I want him to finish strong, have a good offseason and be ready to go again next year."