Nats finally rally late, beat Mets to avoid sweep

For the better part of 72 hours, the Nationals waited to be in this position. In a tight game late, runners on base, hitters at the plate with a chance to do something big and secure the team’s first win of 2022.

And when it finally happened, it was every bit as cathartic as you’d imagine.

Down a run to the Mets in the bottom of the eighth and unable to generate any offense since the bottom of the first, the Nats stormed back in dramatic fashion. Dee Strange-Gordon scored on Lucius Fox’s safety squeeze to tie the game, then Nelson Cruz delivered the two-out, two-run single that propelled Washington to a 4-2 victory to end a frustrating opening weekend on a decidedly upbeat note.

“I’m proud of the way those guys went out today,” manager Davey Martinez said. “They didn’t quit, they kept playing hard. I think they had this thing where they really felt like they were going to win the game, and they were pushing.”

A lineup that had been stuck in neutral through the season’s first three-plus games came to life just in the nick of time. Singles by Yadiel Hernandez and Maikel Franco put runners on the corners with nobody out in the eighth, then Fox (making his major league debut) put down a perfect bunt along the first base line and celebrated as Strange-Gordon (who was pinch-running for Hernandez) narrowly slid in ahead of catcher Tomás Nido’s tag.

“I couldn’t control myself,” said Fox, a 24-year-old infielder who only made the opening day roster after utility infielder Ehire Adrianza suffered a quadriceps strain during the final week of spring training. “I was so excited to see the crowd involved, and to get our first win, it was special. I definitely felt the energy from the crowd. It was an amazing time. It was a dream come true.”

A few batters after Fox’s squeeze, the Nationals found themselves in a best-case scenario: Bases loaded, one out, Juan Soto at the plate. Soto, though, grounded out on the first pitch he saw from right-hander Trevor Williams. That put the onus on Cruz, who struggled the previous three nights but opened this game with his first homer of the season.

And when Cruz sent a ground ball up the middle past a diving Francisco Lindor, two runs scored and the pro-Nationals portion of the crowd of 23,158 finally had reason to celebrate.

“You want to come through in front of your fans, especially in that situation,” Cruz said. “It was nice to see that ball go through the middle and get the runs that we need.”

Tanner Rainey then closed out the victory in his first save opportunity of the year. His bullpen mates (Steve Cishek, Sean Doolittle, Kyle Finnegan) all deserved equal credit for bridging the gap and keeping the game within reach for the offense.

So it was the Nationals avoided an unceremonious 0-4 start to the season, something they hadn’t done since 2009. They now head to Atlanta for three games with the defending champion Braves, hoping to carry a little positive momentum with them.

“It worked out really well with the way things got set up,” Martinez said of his bullpen alignment.

The phrase “Five and Dive” has long been a derogatory way to describe a starting pitcher who lasts only five innings. For these Nationals right now, it’s the ultimate compliment. None of their first three starters could complete the fifth, each of them done in once his pitch count was elevated and the Mets lineup hit for the third time.

So when Erick Fedde pulled off the seemingly impossible this afternoon, it might as well have been cause for celebration.

The right-hander cruised through his first two innings, retiring all six batters faced on 20 pitches. Then he started to labor, needing 19 pitches to get through the third. Then he really labored in the fourth, serving up a leadoff homer to Lindor, a two-out double to Eduardo Escobar, a five-pitch walk of Dominic Smith and an RBI single to Mark Canha to give the Mets the lead.

And now we came to the dreaded top of the fifth, territory no previous Nationals starter has been able to complete. But Fedde did it. Despite a four-pitch walk of Lindor (and subsequent stolen base), he got Robinson Canó to ground out, and so it was a member of the Nats rotation walked off the mound having recorded 15 outs for the first time in 2022.

“It’s tough; I think in the spring I only threw 70 pitches, maybe, in a game,” Fedde said. “But the goal is to go as deep as possible and give the ’pen as much rest as we could.”

Fedde did not, however, depart in line for a win, because his teammates again couldn’t get anything going at the plate against the Mets’ starter.

The afternoon began on an encouraging note, with Cruz launching his first homer of the season to give the Nationals a quick 1-0 lead. Josh Bell followed with a single, and Carlos Carrasco looked to be on the ropes.

But Carrasco immediately settled in and proceeded to retire the next (and, as it turns out, last) 15 batters he faced. The Nats didn’t so much as put another man on base until the bottom of the seventh when Bell drew a walk, then was thrown out trying to steal second with two outs and Hernandez at the plate when he thought he could catch the Mets napping on a splitter in the dirt.

No matter, because the Nationals had another rally in them. And because of it, they have their first win of the year.

“The last thing we wanted to do was get swept out of our home series to start the year,” Fedde said. “I think everyone just feels relieved and glad to get one on the proper side of the column.”

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