Nats rally to beat Phillies, catch NL champs in standings (updated)

The Nationals and Phillies took the field on a steamy, early June evening on South Capitol Street in a position neither likely expected to find itself at this stage of the season. An overachieving Nats club entered the night only one game behind the defending National League champions, who haven’t come close to living up to their lofty expectations two months into the 2023 campaign.

What took place over the ensuing three-plus hours suggested this head-to-head competition may not be nearly as lopsided as everyone assumed.

Despite blowing an early six-run lead, the Nationals rallied to re-take the lead in the bottom of the eighth thanks to a clutch, two-out stolen base by Alex Call and Lane Thomas’ subsequent RBI single. And Davey Martinez’s overworked, recently ineffective “A” bullpen somehow found a way to close out an 8-7 victory before a crowd of 29,827 to catch their division rivals in unlikely fashion.

Yes, the Nationals and Phillies are now tied in the NL East, one team the proud owner of a 25-32 record, the other a not-so-proud owner of the same record.

"It means a lot," Thomas said. "Nobody really expected us to be here. I think we take a few series like we have over the last month, and we could be sitting pretty good here in a few months."

Game 1 of this weekend’s series didn’t come easy to the home team, even though things looked quite easy early on. The Nats stormed out to a 7-1 lead, blasting Zack Wheeler out of the game by the fourth inning. But there was far more baseball to be played and many more outs for this pitching staff to record.

Josiah Gray pitched his way out of trouble early on but succumbed late, pulled with one out in the sixth and his team’s lead trimmed to 7-3. That meant Martinez’s bullpen would need to record 11 outs as a group. That proved an awfully difficult task, but not an impossible one.

Carl Edwards Jr. allowed an inherited runner to score in the sixth. Hunter Harvey then allowed two inherited runners to score in the seventh. Mason Thompson only retired one batter of the three he faced in the eighth. Kyle Finnegan then allowed another inherited runner to score, the Phillies storming all the way back to tie the game.

Finnegan nearly wriggled his way out of the jam Thompson created in the eighth, getting Kyle Schwarber to hit a sharp grounder up the middle with two on and one out. CJ Abrams, who was shaded up the middle, made the play on the second base side of the bag but had to slam on the brakes and reverse directions to touch second, then throw awkwardly across his body to try to complete what would’ve been a sensational double play. That throw sailed wide, and that allowed the tying run to score.

"I thought he had a little bit more time," Martinez said. "He rushed his throw. But he did a great job just getting that out, coming back to the base. I would've been satisfied with him just holding the ball in that situation. But that's just being young and being overly aggressive."

No problem in the end, because Call and Thomas teamed up to deliver the go-ahead run in the bottom of the inning off Connor Brodgon. Call drew a two-out walk and then stole second on the fourth pitch of Thomas’ five-pitch at-bat, an aggressive play that proved oh so important in the end.

"The way Lane's swinging the bat, if you can get on second base, we can win the game," Call said. "I look over and the ball's in the dirt, he doesn't catch it. Now I'm saying: 'Alright, Lane. Come on!'"

It didn't take Thomas long to finish the job. He laced Brogdon's next pitch to center for a two-out single, bringing Call home from second with the biggest run of the night.

"I think you want people to want you up in that situation," Thomas said. "That's the cool part, having your teammates trust you. It's awesome to get a hit like that and come through for the guys who came in and closed the door for us."

Finnegan was the one to ultimately slam the door shut, insisting he could return for the ninth to face the heart of the Phillies lineup after throwing 13 pitches to get through the eighth. He promptly struck out Bryce Harper with a 98-mph fastball, then over a one-out double by Nick Castellanos to get Trea Turner to fly out and J.T. Realmuto to pop out and end the game.

"I just felt like I had some more in me, and I wanted to empty the tank," said Finnegan, who finished with 34 pitches thrown to earn his five-out relief win. "It was a good, hard-fought game, and I felt like I could go out there and get some more outs for us."

"He wanted the ball," Martinez said. "That shows me something."

On the warmest night of the season to date – it was 90 degrees at first pitch – the ball figured to fly more than it has this season to date. And indeed it did, with both teams taking advantage.

The Nationals burst out of the gates against Wheeler, scoring a pair of runs in the first and four more in the second off the unsuspecting Phillies starter, who entered with a 3.60 ERA and a recent stretch of dominance against this opponent.

The Nats were more than ready for Wheeler this time, nobody more so than Jeimer Candelario. The No. 3-hitting third baseman doubled home a run in the first and then doubled home two more runs in the second, leaving him on pace for 48 two-baggers for the season.

Candelario was far from alone. Abrams also doubled in the second, his drive to center traveling farther than Brandon Marsh appeared to expect it would off the bat. Call would drive him home moments later with an RBI single up the middle. Call and Luis García (who also singled during the rally) would both score on Candelario’s second double of the game, this one only a few inches short of clearing the fence in right-center for a homer.

García did clear the fence in the fourth, taking an outside fastball and driving it the other way for a solo homer, his fifth of the year and second in as many games. This one ended Wheeler’s night with two outs in the fourth, the Nationals having scored seven runs off the right-hander for the first time in their last 13 matchups with him, dating back to April 7, 2019 when he was still with the Mets.

"When you play a team like that, you've got to put up as many runs as possible," Martinez said. "And when you come out the way we did, you've got to tack on. It didn't happen tonight, but we got one more than the other guys tonight."

Sure enough, despite the seven-run outburst, this game wasn’t totally secure. Gray managed to avoid serious damage through his first five innings despite getting himself in multiple jams, his best work coming in the top of the first when he recorded three straight outs with runners in scoring position and struck out both Harper and Turner to the delight of the home crowd.

Who would’ve thought the most dangerous hitter in the Philly lineup wasn’t any of the ex-Nationals, but rather Castellanos? The veteran cleanup hitter did most of the damage himself, driving a fastball from Gray to right-center for a leadoff homer in the fourth, then driving a slider from Gray to left-center for a two-run shot in the sixth.

With the bullpen up and running, Martinez gave Gray a chance to retire one more batter. But when Turner ripped a double down the left field line, the Nats manager made the move. Gray departed having allowed three runs, and when Edwards allowed his inherited runner to score on Marsh’s two-out single up the middle, Gray was charged with four runs in a start for the first time since his ragged season debut against the Braves two months ago.

"Looking at the outing as a whole, I was able to limit loud contact until the last four batters," Gray said. "I just wanted to keep the team in the game. They gave me a really big lead. And thankfully they did, cause this could've gotten ugly quick."

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