Nats score early, hold down Phillies in Little League Classic (updated)

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – As he sat in the dugout at tiny, historic Bowman Field this afternoon, watching his team take the field for batting practice, Davey Martinez considered what participation in the MLB Little League Classic meant for the Nationals.

Most of these players had never been in a nationally televised game before. Certainly none of them had played in a game in a setting like this, with an invitation-only crowd of 2,473 made up of Little League World Series competitors, their families and other locals packing themselves into this rustic minor league ballpark.

This whole day, which began with a fun-filled tour of the nearby Little League World Series complex, was a big deal for the Nationals. But there was also an actual major league game to play, and in it a chance for this fast-growing team to show just how far it has come in a short amount of time.

That made the Nats’ 4-3 victory over the Phillies all the more special. Yeah, the specific details were important to the individuals who performed well, none more so than Trevor Williams, who tossed six scoreless innings of two-hit ball to save a weary bullpen. But this was important for the franchise as a whole, a chance to show a larger audience what fans back in D.C. have already picked up on: These guys are playing really good baseball right now.

"It's been really good," catcher Keibert Ruiz said. "We have a really good family in the clubhouse, and we believe we can play good against a really good team like the Philadelphia Phillies. All the teams."

Yes, the Nationals have now gone 19-10 since July 21, winning seven of nine series in the process. And five of those series wins have come over contenders: the Giants, Brewers, Reds, Red Sox and now Phillies.

"One, they should feel blessed about something like this," Martinez said from the dugout before the game. "Two, they should understand that there's more to come. This is only the beginning. Take it for what it's worth, understand where we're at and enjoy every moment of it. But learn from it. Because I really believe this club, we've been there before, and there's a limelight at the end of this tunnel. And these guys are going to reap the benefits."

It was all there for everyone to watch tonight, with Williams leading a pitching clinic and making the most of a four-run rally to kick off the festivities.

As they came up to bat in the top of the first, in the smallest major league park they’ll ever encounter, in front of a crowd unlike any they’ll ever perform before again, the Nationals put on a hitting show for the world to see.

"A game like this is big," shortstop CJ Abrams said. "There's a lot of fans watching back at home. It's just an exciting game to play, let alone to win."

The first five batters who faced Zack Wheeler recorded hits, each more damaging than the previous. Abrams singled to right. Lane Thomas singled to left. Joey Meneses singled to left, loading the bases. Ruiz then ripped a double to deep right field, bringing home a pair. Dominic Smith then singled to left-center, bringing home another pair to cap a four-run rally and set the tone for the evening.

"I mean, that was the only four runs we scored. It was pretty big," Abrams joked. "We got the bats going early, and it paid off."

Little could anyone have realized at the time there would be no more offense until there were two outs in the top of the ninth, after the sun set, after dusk dissipated and long after the temporary lights installed here took full effect.

The Nationals couldn’t get anything else going against Wheeler, but they didn’t need to because the Phillies never got anything going against Williams.

The right-hander entered this one with a season-high 5.20 ERA on the heels of back-to-back-to-back ragged starts, including one against this same Phillies lineup, which homered three times and scored six runs off him in only 4 2/3 innings.

The first inning took longer than Williams wanted, with Philadelphia working two walks and forcing him to throw 29 pitches, but he survived without anybody scoring. And then he flat-out cruised from that point on.

Williams never allowed more than one baserunner per inning after that, only one of those even reaching second base. He kept the ball down in the zone, induced mostly weak contact and only gave the small crowd reason to react with hope of a ball clearing the fence once or twice. (And neither of those drives even reached the warning track.)

"I think the short answer is it's jitters. First-inning jitters," he said of his long opening frame. "You adjust to the ballpark. You adjust to the setting, the backdrop. But thankfully we had some plays behind me to bail me out of a two-walk situation in an inning."

It was an unlikely pitching clinic from a guy who hadn’t looked like this in some time, if at all this season. But it was sorely needed. For Williams, whose standing in the rotation may have been starting to teeter. And for the Nationals, who had been forced to ask way too much of their bullpen all week and now could hand over the final three innings tonight to the top relievers who all were unavailable Saturday and watched as the rest of the bullpen turned a 3-0 lead into a 12-3 debacle.

No worries about that tonight, though there was a brief moment of panic when Kyle Finnegan - summoned with two outs in the ninth after Mason Thompson couldn't finish it himself - surrendered a homer to Jake Cave to cut the lead to one run.

In the end, Finnegan got the job done, and the Nationals celebrated another series win. Technically another home series win, even though the unique setting felt anything like home.

"I'm proud of the guys, especially how we've been fighting in the second half, how we've been playing ball," Williams said. "And for us to showcase that today on a national stage is something that's huge for us to take a step forward as a team."

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