Nats rally late against Hader again to beat Padres (updated)

SAN DIEGO – They went to the ninth all knotted up, for the second straight night. The Nationals’ bullpen kept holding the Padres’ supposedly superior lineup in check, just trying to give its lineup an opportunity to push across the go-ahead run.

And when the San Diego bullpen gate swung open and Josh Hader emerged, the Nats had themselves exactly the opportunity they needed.

For the second straight night, they took down the suddenly slumping All-Star closer. And for the second straight night, they emerged with an inspiring victory over a shell-shocked Padres team and its crowd, this time by the score of 6-3.

"We're battling. And we're actually finishing games," manager Davey Martinez said. "The last couple of days have been really good. And even before then, we fell short, but we're playing a lot better."

Hader faced three batters in the top of the ninth in what had been a tie game. He walked the first one, Victor Robles. He uncorked a three-base throwing error on a tapper toward the mound by the second one, Lane Thomas. And then he served up a two-run homer to the third guy, Alex Call, whose first career major league blast was an especially memorable one.

As he walked off the mound upon getting yanked by manager Bob Melvin, Hader was greeted with resounding boos from the Petco Park crowd of 39,474. Things aren’t going the way they were supposed to go around here after the trade deadline, not at all. The Nationals are happily benefitting from it.

"I'm excited for him," Martinez said, referring to Call. "But I'm really excited about how our guys are just not quitting. They're playing hard. I've always told them we're going to play 27 outs, every single day. And they're doing that." 

They won Thursday night’s series opener in similar fashion, riding Hader’s wildness in the top of the ninth to eke out a 3-1 win. Tonight, they took advantage both of his lack of accuracy and one big blast from an unlikely source.

The rally began with Robles’ leadoff walk, which left the crowd uneasy. It only got worse when Hader went to track down Thomas’ little dribbler in front of the mound and then fired way high of first baseman Josh Bell, the ball caroming off the wall down the line and scooting past right fielder Juan Soto, who had to reverse course and try to make a diving catch. Robles came all the way around to score the go-ahead run, and Thomas wound up on third base, in position to score an insurance run.

"I was like: Heck, yeah!" said Call, who watched it all from the on-deck circle. "As soon as Soto dove for the ball and missed it, I was like: Oh my gosh, we're going to score here! That was huge, because then we're winning. And Laner was on third, so I was like: OK, time to drive this guy in."

Call would not only drive Thomas in, but also himself when he blasted an 0-2 fastball from Hader deep to left for his first career homer. The 27-year-old rookie, claimed off waivers from the Guardians two weeks ago, called up to D.C. this week, now has himself a memory he’ll always cherish.

"I've definitely visualized it hundreds of times," said Call, who had fouled off a safety squeeze attempt the previous pitch. "It felt so good rounding the bases. I mean, the ninth inning? Off Josh Hader? Definitely something you'll remember for the rest of your life. I enjoyed every step around the bases, that's for sure."

Kyle Finnegan then closed it out in the bottom of the ninth for his second save in as many nights, completing another standout performance from the Nats bullpen, which also saw zeros posted by Steve Cishek, Carl Edwards Jr. and Erasmo Ramirez.

"Defense and pitching is going to help us out," Martinez said. "If we can pitch and get to that bullpen, those guys have been doing well."

For the second straight night, the starting pitchers found themselves in a rematch of their previous outings, going back at it five days later on the other side of the country. This time, the Nationals managed to get something going against Blake Snell, while Paolo Espino thrived against the Padres.

Snell, who tossed six scoreless innings Sunday in D.C., found himself trying to pitch out of traffic most of the night this time, and the Nats managed to break through in the top of the third. After back-to-back singles, Keibert Ruiz and César Hernández each took off from their respective bases and wound up safe without drawing a throw. Ruiz, the lead runner, wound up with his sixth stolen base in seven attempts, a surprisingly effective success rate for a catcher.

"It's the first time with that many stolen bases in one year," he said with a laugh. "I ran a lot in the offseason."

The double-steal paid off, because it put both runners in scoring position for CJ Abrams, who delivered a two-out, two-run single to left, notching another clutch hit off a tough lefty (as he did Tuesday night against the Cubs).

Ruiz continued to contribute in the fifth when he ripped a two-out RBI single to left off Snell, driving home Joey Meneses from second with the Nationals’ third run of the game. He wound up reaching base in all five of his plate appearances, the second time he's done that this season.

"He's starting to really understand the game. The whole game," Martinez said of Ruiz. "Not just the catching portion, but what he can do if he pays attention. All these things we talk about before the game, what we can do and what we can't do. He's starting to catch on, and it's been fun watching him grow, watching him mature and watching the things he's been doing."

The Padres didn’t produce many hits off Espino. In fact, they only recorded three of them, all in the bottom of the second, with only Trent Grisham’s RBI single to right including solid contact.

Espino’s downfall, though, was a surprising lack of command as the night wore on. He issued two walks in the fourth, though he managed to strand both runners. The same wasn’t true in the fifth, when he issued back-to-back, one-out walks of Jurickson Profar and Juan Soto, and Martinez decided not to push his starter any further.

Out came Espino, and in came Victor Arano to face Manny Machado. Arano had pulled off a huge escape act the previous night, striking out both Profar and Soto with the bases loaded to help lead the Nationals to an eventual 3-1 win. There was no such magic tonight when Machado ripped a two-run double off the wall in right-center to tie this game at 3-3 and set the stage for another late night of late-night drama that again went the plucky visitors' way.

"It's awesome to see the young talent that we have be able to produce really important moments," Espino said. "Abrams with the single for two RBIs early in the game. Keibert, he's doing a really, really good job. And Call getting that homer for those extra runs at the end. It's just really nice seeing the young talent that the team has producing."

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