Nats outsmart, outhit Mariners late to win second straight (updated)

Too often this month the Nationals have put themselves in a position to score the late run they need to overcome an opponent, only to squander the prime opportunity with low-quality at-bats.

This time, they delivered when it mattered. And they did so in part by outsmarting the opposition.

During a critical sequence in the bottom of the seventh, Davey Martinez pressed all the right buttons that allowed the Nats to turn a tie game into a 3-1 victory over the Mariners, ensuring a series victory and a potential sweep Sunday afternoon.

"It kind of reminds me of the days we had the pitcher hitting," Martinez said. "A little National League game. It's fun when everyone's engaged and guys are playing well. Today, these guys were playing well."

Trevor Williams did his part to give his team a chance to win yet again with five strong innings of one-run ball. The bullpen did its part not to ruin Williams’ start. And the guys who stepped to the plate with the game on the line made sure none of it went to waste.

The rally began with a one-out single by Jesse Winker, who then stole second off Mariners lefty Gabe Speier to put himself in scoring position. A bloop single by Keibert Ruiz put runners on the corners with one out, and now came the managerial chess match of the afternoon.

With the slumping Nick Senzel (and then the slumping Joey Gallo following him) due up, Seattle manager Scott Servais summoned right-hander Trent Thornton, a move that played right into Martinez’s hands. Martinez immediately countered by sending Ildemaro Vargas (the hottest hitter on the team at the moment) up to pinch-hit for Senzel. (Victor Robles also pinch-ran for Winker, who cramped up on a muggy, 88-degree afternoon.)

With a favorable matchup already on their side, Martinez also had the slow-footed Ruiz take off from first base on the pitch, specifically trying to avoid a double play. Sure enough, when Vargas hit a slow roller to short, the only play was to first, and that allowed Robles to score the go-ahead run.

"I always talk about things we could do throughout the game," Martinez said. "We had that penciled in, if (a right-handed reliever) did come in for a big situation, we could pinch-hit for him right there. It was a big situation. He put the ball in play."

Moments later, Gallo (stuck on five RBIs since April 15) lined a single to right. And Ruiz, probably the slowest runner on the team, somehow managed to make it the necessary 180 feet to narrowly score ahead of Cal Raleigh’s tag at the plate, extending the lead to 3-1.

"It's something I don't do all the time," Ruiz said with a smirk. "But I'm just happy the way we won, and however we won."

The rest was academic. Dylan Floro tossed a 1-2-3 seventh to extend his scoreless streak to 21 2/3 innings, the longest by any reliever in Nationals club history. Hunter Harvey posted a zero in the eighth. And Kyle Finnegan, making his first appearance in a week, finished it off in the ninth for his 14th save in 16 attempts.

"Anytime you can finish off a game, especially when a starter gives you (good) innings, and we shut the door 7-8-9, we're just doing our job," Floro said. "That's what we're supposed to do. And it's nice when it all comes together."

As the weeks pass and the quality pitching performances continue, there seems to be less and less question about when this run is going to end for Williams and more and more question about how long he can keep it up. The veteran right-hander has now made 10 starts this season, and he has still yet to allow more than three runs in any of them. Shoot, he’s allowed zero or one earned run in seven of those 10 starts, including today.

Williams was at it again this afternoon, flummoxing the Mariners lineup not with soft contact but swings and misses. Possessor of one of the slowest fastballs of any right-hander in the majors, he nonetheless continued to use his four-seamer effectively by saving it up until later in at-bats to catch hitters off guard.

Williams wound up striking out eight batters (matching his career high) by the end of the fourth, and six of those were swinging strikeouts on fastballs that topped out at 90 mph, many of them up in the zone.

"I trusted Keibert in those spots, because he saw them yesterday, and I saw we had a lot of putaways yesterday hard late with fastballs," Williams said. "Granted, MacKenzie (Gore's) fastball is a lot harder than mine. But given those looks in Game 1, you can carry it over into Game 2."

His only mistake came on an 85-mph sinker that didn’t quite sink enough. And unfortunately, he picked the wrong hitter to throw it to: Julio Rodriguez. The Seattle star drove it 433 feet to center field for a leadoff homer in the fifth, the only truly loud contact off Williams the entire afternoon.

With his pitch count at 83 at the end of that inning, Williams might normally have been done. But Martinez let him retake the mound for the sixth, if only to face Dylan Moore before turning to Robert Garcia to face the left-handed portion of the Mariners lineup. Williams gave up a leadoff double to Moore, so that put added pressure on Garcia. But the lefty responded by retiring all three batters he faced, two of them via strikeouts.

"We trust the bullpen," Williams said. "Our bullpen's been shutdown. They've been tremendous for us. They've been the reason why we're winning so many games. For us to turn the ball over to the bullpen, it's always a good thing."

That kept the game knotted at 1-1, the Nationals having scored their lone run way back in the second with a major dose of small ball. Luis García Jr. led off with an infield single and stole second. Winker went completely off-script with a drag-bunt single past pitcher Logan Gilbert. And Ruiz, slowly but surely starting to make more authoritative contact, drove in Garcia with a sacrifice fly to center.

It remained 1-1 because the Nationals couldn’t do anything else against Gilbert. Then Servais (who, by the way, would be ejected in the ninth inning arguing balls and strikes) turned to his bullpen, and the home team took full advantage.

"It feels good to get a series win, especially against a first-place team like this," Williams said. "I'm thankful that we get a chance to get a sweep tomorrow."

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