ATLANTA – The 2023 Nationals didn’t have many defining characteristics, but here are two that stood out: 1) They were excellent at scoring runs in the first inning, and 2) They always battled through the ninth inning (and sometimes beyond).
That combo was on full display during today’s finale. The Nats jumped out to a quick lead, gave it back, then rallied late to re-take the lead and ultimately escape town with an uplifting, 10-9 victory over the Braves in Game 162.
Some of the least experienced players on the roster made it happen. Trailing by a run entering the ninth, rookie catcher Drew Millas drew a bases-loaded walk off Atlanta’s Michael Tonkin to tie the game. Moments later, rookie center fielder Jacob Young drilled a two-run single to not only give his team the lead, but give closer Kyle Finnegan a little bit of cushion for the bottom of the ninth.
"When those moments come as a young guy, you try to do your best and help your team," said Young, who was playing his 33rd big league game. "They're new situations for most of us. To experience those for the first time, you hopefully get used to them for the future."
And when Finnegan finished it off (in spite of a solo Marcell Ozuna homer and a subsequent Michael Harris II double), he secured his 28th save and the Nationals’ 71st victory, a 16-game improvement from the previous season that hasn’t been lost on the players, management or fans.
"I could tell you that this is how we played all year," manager Davey Martinez said. "We battled back. We played hard. We played for 27 outs. And to finish up with a victory, it's all good. It's a testament to how hard these guys played, and they showed it again tonight."
Today’s finale had a little bit of everything. The Nats jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the top of the first, then watched the Braves back to take a 7-5 lead in the seventh. They responded by tying the game in the top of the eighth with a typically scrappy rally that included a sacrifice bunt by Millas, an RBI groundout by Young and an RBI infield single by CJ Abrams (who then proceeded to steal his 47th base to set a new club record).
But they immediately gave the lead back in the bottom of the eighth when Hunter Harvey surrendered a leadoff double to Eddie Rosario and an RBI single to Orlando Arcia.
No problem, because they still had one last rally in them, which was entirely appropriate. The Nationals ranked in the top 8 in runs scored this season in only two specific innings: the first and the ninth.
Truth be told, today’s game was less about the team result than it was about the handful of personal milestones that were at stake. The Nationals wasted no time taking care of a couple of them.
Abrams led off the game with a single to center on the very first pitch, then moments later swiped second for his 46th stolen base of the year, matching Trea Turner’s club record. (He would then set the record in the top of the eighth, the huge lead he took was a clear sign of his intentions.)
"It's an honor," the still-22-year-old said. "It shows that the hard work pays off. All the little things pay off in the long run. Next year, let's see if can do even more than that."
Lane Thomas followed Abrams’ leadoff single with a base hit of his own, his first of three on the afternoon. Joey Meneses followed that with a double to left, bringing Abrams home and raising Meneses’ RBI total to 89. (He missed a couple of opportunities to notch No. 90).
And when Keibert Ruiz doubled home a pair, Thomas scampered home with his 100th run of the season. He’s the 10th player in Nats history to reach triple digits, and he added another one inning later on another RBI hit by Ruiz.
Of less consequence, but not significance to the player involved, Alex Call beat out an infield single to not only cap a four-run rally for the Nationals in the top of the first, but also to raise his batting average from .199 to .201.
With a 4-0 lead in hand, Jackson Rutledge took the mound in an advantageous position. The rookie right-hander, though, immediately got himself in trouble, giving up a pair of runs in a 26-pitch bottom of the first that turned the rest of his day into an uphill battle.
Rutledge, who beat the Braves one week ago for his first career win, surrendered one other big hit: a three-run homer by Ozuna on a high, 97-mph fastball. He made it through five innings on 92 pitches, but with five runs across the plate, he finished with a 6.75 ERA in four major league starts (two of them impressive, two of them not so much).
"Last year, I was struggling to get out of the third inning against the Delmarva Shorebirds. And now I’m pitching into the fifth against the Atlanta Braves. That’s a big difference," he said. "Obviously, I didn’t want to give up five runs today. But going forward, I know I can pitch at this level. Having that confidence going forward that I’m in a good spot is important.”
Rutledge was long gone by the time today's game was decided late. He’s only been here a few weeks, but by now he should have learned this team rarely saw its games decided early.
"This team, we play with a lot of energy," the rookie right-hander said. "We're fired up all the time. Obviously, we didn't have a winning season this year. But going forward, if you carry this energy, and all the young guys continue to develop, we're going to have a lot of wins."