ST. LOUIS – Not that he wanted to be in this position, restarting a game in the bottom of the third that began the previous night. But if ever there was a time for the Nationals to be in this position, this was it.
Davey Martinez had an exceedingly rested bullpen coming out of the All-Star break, an extra long reliever taking the spot of Patrick Corbin while he’s on paternity leave and the ability to use anyone he wanted at any point in an attempt to win this afternoon’s completion of Friday night’s suspended game against the Cardinals.
Turns out the Nationals won this game not because of their well-rested bullpen, but because of a productive lineup that kept making up for the bullpen's mistakes.
Ultimately, it was back-to-back singles by CJ Abrams and Lane Thomas in the top of the 10th that allowed the Nats to plate a pair of runs off Cardinals closer Jordan Hicks and emerge with a hard-earned 7-5 victory to get this long day and night of baseball off to an uplifting start.
"It was a good day for our hitters," said Martinez, whose team has won three in a row sandwiched around the All-Star break and is now 22-22 on the road this season. "I wish we would've won a little bit earlier, but the bullpen came in and held it down. We played well."
Abrams and Thomas each singled off Hicks in the 10th, the latter hit coming on an 0-2, 100-mph fastball, with Thomas finding a wide open hole on the right side of the infield to score automatic runner Alex Call and give the Nationals the lead.
"You've just got to fight," Thomas said of facing the flame-throwing Hicks. "There was a big hole at second base. I had just chased a slider, and I was just trying to stay on whatever he threw a little bit longer, and got a good piece of it."
Ildemaro Vargas followed with a run-scoring double play, providing Hunter Harvey with some cushion for the bottom of the 10th. Harvey finished it off for his ninth save, in the process giving the Nats their third win in four extra-inning games this season.
All of this came after previous relievers twice blew the lead.
Despite a fifth-inning hiccup that saw Cory Abbott serve up a three-run homer to Brendan Donovan, the Nationals were still in an advantageous position, leading 5-4 in the eighth after Joey Meneses drilled a two-out RBI double off the wall in left. That clutch hit, along with an earlier RBI single, raised Meneses’ average with runners in scoring position to a whopping .420 (37-for-88).
"I just think for some reason in those moments, I focus more," Meneses said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "I prepare myself. I feel like I'm ready for that at-bat. And for some reason, when those at-bats come up, I feel more ready with my focus."
It did not prove to be the game-winning hit, though. After getting scoreless work from Jordan Weems and Mason Thompson, Martinez turned to Kyle Finnegan in the eighth. The right-hander got two quick outs but then grooved an 0-2 fastball to Willson Contreras, who blasted it to right-center for the game-tying homer.
Finnegan, to his credit, returned for the bottom of the ninth and retired the side, sending the first game of this doubleheader day into extra innings.
"He said he felt great," Martinez said of Finnegan, who wound up throwing only 18 pitches (15 strikes) across two innings. "Big moment for him, big moment for us. He was throwing the ball really well."
It required a wait of 17 hours, 25 minutes, but Friday night’s game did finally resume this afternoon. Both managers had to decide who to place on the mound after both starters were burned up prior to the rain delay. Both may have regretted those decisions later on.
Andre Pallante took over for the Cardinals and immediately gave up a run in the top of the fourth, with Abrams beating out an infield single, stealing second, advancing to third on a ground ball and scoring on Meneses’ two-out RBI single down the first base line.
Things completely crumbled for St. Louis in the fifth, an inning that saw the Nationals score three runs without benefit of a hit. Pallante was pulled by Oli Marmol after issuing a pair of walks. Chris Stratton fared no better, though he was undone by his defense.
The Cardinals were charged with three errors that inning alone: two on catcher Contreras, one on third baseman Nolan Arenado, all on throws that sailed way beyond their intended target. The Nats did force the issue with some aggressive baserunning, scoring one of their runs on a well-executed double steal that saw Abrams swipe second and draw the throw while Luis García scampered home from third.
"Once I'm on base, good things happen," said Abrams, who is 7-for-7 on stolen base attempts the last five games. "I can steal some bases for the team, as I showed today. ... If we can put pressure on the defense, use smaller ball and steal bases, things like that, we'll be good."
No matter how they scored those runs, the Nationals happily took a 4-1 lead into the bottom of the fifth, needing Abbott merely to complete one more inning of quality relief before handing the rest of the game to their top relievers. That proved far more difficult a challenge than Martinez desired.
Abbott’s afternoon got off to a fine start; though he issued ball four to Paul Goldschmidt in the at-bat he inherited from Friday night starter Trevor Williams, he proceeded to retire the next five batters he faced. Then it all fell apart. In the span of four batters, Abbott turned a three-run lead into a 4-4 tie game, Donovan’s blast to right on a 3-2 slider right down the pipe the defining blow.
And so this game that began Friday night was now knotted up heading into the latter innings Saturday afternoon, the two bullpens trying to outmaneuver each other and emerge with a win before both teams do it all over again later this evening.
"We've been playing a lot better lately," Meneses said. "A lot of it, I think, has to do with the unity of this team. We know what we can and can't do, and we just go out there and try to do the best possible, and hopefully the outcome's in our favor. ... And personally, I don't like it when other teams see us as a small team and view us that way. It gives us a little more motivation to go out there and play well. And hopefully the results are in our favor."