KANSAS CITY, Mo. – What is it about the sixth inning at Kauffman Stadium that brings out the best in the Nationals lineup?
Maybe the guys just need to spend five innings at the plate getting comfortable with their surroundings, since they’ve hardly ever played in this ballpark. Maybe it’s a reflection of the Royals pitching staff, with fading starters unable to get through an opposing lineup a third time and middle relievers unable to clean up the mess. Maybe it’s just sheer baseball coincidence and not an actual sign of anything.
Whatever the reason, the Nationals are happy to accept the results. Because for the second time in 24 hours they flipped a switch in the sixth, scored a bunch of runs and emerged victorious at the end of the day, this time by a count of 4-2 over Kansas City.
"Hey, it's been good," said manager Davey Martinez, whose team is now 18-16 since April 20, the fourth-best mark in the National League during that span. "We've been battling, and the at-bats got good again. We're starting to get the ball up a little bit, and staying in the middle of the field."
This rally wasn’t quite as dramatic as Friday night’s top-of-the-sixth explosion, when the Nats scored eight runs and saw Luis García become the first player in club history to record two doubles in the same inning. But it was plenty impressive in its own right.
Shut down by Royals starter Brady Singer to that point, the Nationals came alive in the sixth, their first six batters to the plate reaching base safely, the first four of them eventually scoring.
The rally included an RBI double by Corey Dickerson, the 1,000th hit of the veteran outfielder’s career, which knocked Singer from the game. It included Keibert Ruiz’s subsequent RBI single to center off lefty Josh Taylor, bringing Dickerson home with the tying run. And it concluded with CJ Abrams’ two-run double to deep right, the go-ahead hit and the latest example of a big hit late by the young shortstop.
"Laying off tough pitches," Martinez said of Abrams' double. "That was the key there: He laid off some sliders. And getting ready in time, that was huge. He got his foot down, saw the ball up a little bit and put a nice swing on it."
So here are the Nationals’ totals from the sixth inning so far in this series: 11-for-18, five doubles, one homer, three walks, one hit batter and 12 runs scored.
"This team is very good at putting the ball in play," Dickerson said. "Sometimes, it don't go your way. Testament to (the Royals), they had a good gameplan at first. We just stayed with it. I think the guys in this clubhouse, we don't walk a lot, but we put the ball in play. And sometimes, good things happen. There's a lot of good hitters in this room."
The Nats desperately needed today’s heroics in the sixth, because they did very little in any other frame. They finished the game 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position, squandering several opportunities to expand upon their lead. Fortunately, they didn’t need it.
Today’s rally took Josiah Gray off the hook following an abbreviated outing that featured plenty of harrowing moments but only two runs allowed.
On a day in which starter length seemed to be a priority, the Nationals got the opposite of that from Gray. The right-hander sprayed the ball all around the strike zone all afternoon while also suffering from 22 pitches the Royals fouled off, prolonging their at-bats, 10 of those coming off his cutter.
"It wasn't a matter of them squaring it up. It was a matter of me just executing and getting that strikeout, or that groundout or flyout," he said. "But I'm still confident in that pitch; it's acquiring strikes. Foul balls, we'll always take them. I think today was a good test, a scrappy lineup. I think I had a few eight-plus pitch at-bats, so that probably knocked me out a little sooner than I wanted. But I thought the stuff was better than my last outing."
Gray’s command wasn’t off quite as much as it was Sunday against the Tigers, when he issued a season-high six walks. But he did give away three free passes, two of them to begin an inning. His first-inning walk of leadoff man Nick Pratto came back to haunt him, with Pratto eventually scoring from third on a slider in the dirt Ruiz couldn’t corral.
Gray also was victimized by an old foe: the longball. Salvador Perez, who nearly homered in the bottom of the first, did homer in the bottom of the third, blasting a first-pitch slider to left to give Kansas City a 2-0 lead.
To his credit, Gray once again managed to minimize the damage even when he didn’t have his best stuff. Those would be the only two runs he would score, but with his pitch count a sky-high 91 after only four innings, Martinez decided not to push him any farther and instead handed the rest of the game to the bullpen.
"Today, he did a great job keeping us at 2-0," Martinez said. "Things could've imploded there for us, but he did a great job of getting the outs we needed."
Five innings from an overtaxed bullpen is no small challenge. Turns out ths group was more than up to it, particularly the three relievers who had Friday night off to recover from their recent heavy workload.
Mason Thompson enjoyed his best performance in weeks, tossing two scoreless innings in relief of Gray to bridge the gap to Martinez’s regular back-end arms.
Carl Edwards Jr., who did pitch Friday, came back with a scoreless seventh, stranding two runners on base. Hunter Harvey, who blew the save Thursday against the Padres, pitched a scoreless eighth with little drama. And Kyle Finnegan, given the opportunity to close this one, did so for his 11th save in 13 tries.
"I think any one of those guys in the bullpen are capable of going out there and putting up a zero," Thompson said. "We did a good job of that today. We've just got to keep it up. The team's been playing really well. We've been hitting the ball well, playing good defense behind us. We've just got to go out there and attack."