Nats hang on for dear life during 1-0 win over Rangers (updated)

ARLINGTON, Texas – One-run games aren’t for the faint of heart. And by one-run games, we’re not talking about games with a one-run margin of victory. We’re talking about 1-0 games, where every moment is magnified, every pitch is crucial and any one mistake can spell doom.

That the Nationals somehow found a way to pull off a 1-0 win tonight over the Rangers was nothing short of remarkable. It required another highly effective performance from Trevor Williams, who twice stranded the bases loaded. It required the scratching across of a single run by a lineup that has done next to nothing in two nights at Globe Life Park. And it required some electric work from a bullpen that knew it had zero margin for error.

But that all somehow came together beautifully over the course of 2 hours, 11 minutes this evening, leaving Davey Martinez’s heart pounding but happy at the end of a taut ballgame.

"You know what," Martinez said, "it gets interesting at the end there. ... As I often say, we try to get one more than the other guys. And today, it came true."

The Nats are a .500 club once again, opening the month of May with a win over the defending World Series champs and now giving themselves another opportunity to get over the elusive hump in Thursday’s series finale.

They haven’t hit much these last two nights, totaling two runs on eight hits with zero walks drawn. But their starting pitching has been outstanding, and their bullpen was filthy tonight.

Williams set the tone with five scoreless innings, yet another strong outing by the supposed No. 5 starter who has pitched more like a No. 1 or No. 2. Martinez, though, still needed four zeros from his bullpen. And he got them.

Derek Law retired the side in the sixth. Dylan Floro got a chance to pitch the seventh, taking on a role that had typically belonged to Jordan Weems. He issued a leadoff walk but recorded two outs before giving way to Hunter Harvey, tasked once again with a multi-inning relief appearance. Harvey responded with four big outs on 28 pitches, including a strikeout of Adolis García on a 99 mph fastball to end the seventh.

"Before the game, you try to match up the best-case scenario for all those guys," Martinez said. "Today, it all worked out."

Kyle Finnegan had to face the top of the Rangers lineup in the ninth to secure his 10th save in 11 attempts. He proceeded to strike out the side, getting Corey Seager with a splitter on his final pitch to wrap up the Nats' first 1-0 win since 2022, their first 1-0 road win since 2017.

"So much of pitching is momentum, and building off each other, and trying to pass the baton," said Finnegan, who lowered his ERA to 2.03. "I'm trying to just not be the one to mess that up."

Williams got the job done throughout the season’s first month in all manner of fashion. Tonight, he did it with some sorcery.

Twice during his five innings the right-hander loaded the bases with nobody out. And twice he escaped the jam with nary a runner crossing the plate.

"I feel like every time I'm in that situation, we don't get out of it," Harvey said with a laugh. "So watching him do it, it was crazy. I asked him if he's been hanging out with Finny at all, because Finny's got the horseshoe. But he pitched great tonight and got out of it. It was awesome."

Three straight singles opened the bottom of the third and left Williams in a jam. He proceeded to get Wyatt Langford to chop a grounder to third, with Trey Lipscomb getting the easy force out at the plate, then struck out Jonah Heim on three pitches and got Leody Taveras to ground out.

Two singles and a walk opened the bottom of the fifth and once again left Williams in a jam, this time against the heart of the Texas lineup. And he once again calmly navigated his way through it, getting Nathaniel Lowe to tap a roller back to the mound for the 1-2 force out, then striking out García with a high 88 mph fastball and getting Evan Carter to pop up on the next pitch.

"Believe it or not, I've been there before," Williams said. "I've pitched with bases loaded, no outs before. You're just taking it one pitch at a time. ... You just trust that as a pitcher, no matter what, you have the advantage. You're trying to execute your pitches first, but you're also trying to exploit the hitter wanting to do a little too much."

All told, the Rangers went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position (the one hit not producing a run) against Williams, who allowed nine batters to reach (five hits, four walks) but none to score. And in the process, he authored his sixth consecutive start without surrendering a home run, a remarkable turn of events for a guy who led the National League with 34 bombs served up one year ago. He hasn't given one up in 39 1/3 innings, dating back to last September, the longest active streak among major league starters.

"The ability to change speeds and keep the ball down," Martinez said. "He's been doing it all year. We talked last year: He threw a lot of balls up. That's where the home runs came. This year, he's really keeping the ball down."

Williams’ pitch count stood at only 79 after the fifth, but given how high-stress many of those pitches were, Martinez decided not to press his luck and turned to his bullpen for the sixth. Thus did Williams depart the game with his ERA down to 2.27, a far cry from the 5.55 mark he held at the end of the 2023 season.

Williams entered the evening with only two wins despite five strong starts, victimized by some poor run support and a couple of poor bullpen outings. And he departed tonight with only the slimmest margin, the Nationals leading 1-0 and needing to play perfect baseball the rest of the way to reward their starter.

As was the case in Tuesday’s series opener, baserunners were few and far between. The Nats did finally get an extra-base hit tonight, with Ildemaro Vargas lining a double to left-center in the top of the second to put himself in scoring position. Alex Call responded moments later with a single to left, Vargas racing around to score ahead of the throw to the plate for a 1-0 lead.

That’s all they would get against Rangers left-hander Andrew Heaney, who like Jon Gray the previous night cruised through some awfully quick innings, giving himself the opportunity to pitch deep into the game. For the second straight night, the Nationals did not draw a walk against the opposing starter.

"We've got to start working better at-bats," Martinez said. "Start seeing a little bit more pitches. We're going up there and it's swing, swing, swing, swing. We've got to start working counts a little better."

All of which meant their pitching staff had to be perfect on a night in which there was zero margin for error. And when that group was perfect, it made the final outcome all the more satisfying.

"It's always fun, especially against these guys, coming off the World Series year," Harvey said. "And just the atmosphere here is fun. Being able to win 1-0 against this team is awesome."

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