There was juice at Nationals Park tonight, the kind of energy that comes not merely from a large crowd but from a highly competitive game between an opponent trying to reach the World Series for the second straight year and a home team trying to prove to everyone they’re not as far away from reaching that goal as most would’ve believed not long ago.
A crowd of 26,747 that included a healthy amount of Phillies fans roared when the Nationals took an early lead off Michael Lorenzen, foiling his unlikely bid for a second straight no-hitter. It roared when the Phillies put up a six-spot in the top of the fourth to take what looked like a commanding lead. It roared when the Nats fought right back to score six runs of their own in the bottom of the inning and re-take the lead. And it roared as a parade of Nationals relievers held on to finish off a thoroughly enjoyable 8-7 victory and continue a thoroughly convincing turnaround over the last month.
Thanks to CJ Abrams’ three-run homer and lights-out work from a bullpen that looks better each passing day, the Nats won for the 15th time in their last 18 home games. They’re 18-9 since July 21. And they continue to beat good teams, often through a surge of power and late-inning heroics.
"We always tell each other we're going to surprise some people," Abrams said. "I think we've done that. And we're going to keep going and see what happens."
Why wouldn’t the assembled crowd on South Capitol Street tonight feel the energy and embrace a rebuilding home ballclub that is trying to expedite the timeline for a return to the kind of success that used to be the norm around here?
"Oh man, they're beautiful," manager Davey Martinez said, motioning toward the fans watching his postgame press conference from the adjacent club. "They were the 27th man tonight. They were standing up to the last out."
Abrams’ blast capped off a wild fourth inning that saw each team score six runs, but it left all kinds of pressure on the Nationals bullpen to work overtime to make sure the rally held up.
That group came through in fine fashion, though it did get tense late. After Jose A. Ferrer, Jordan Weems, Robert Garcia, Andres Machado and Hunter Harvey combined to toss four scoreless innings, with Machado striking out Trea Turner to escape a bases-loaded jam in the seventh and Harvey retiring the side in the eighth, Kyle Finnegan entered for the third straight day and immediately served up a homer to Kyle Schwarber, the first run he had allowed in 14 2/3 innings.
No matter, because Finnegan still closed it out and earned his 20th save in the process.
"The solo shot there, we're still winning the game," he said. "Lock in on the next hitter, try to get him out, and it kind of rolls from there. It's not the way you want to start off an inning, but we were still fine at that point."
All of this to reward the lineup’s efforts against a guy who was on top of the world not long ago.
It was a mere nine nights ago and a mere 134 miles northeast of here when Lorenzen enjoyed the finest hour of his career, becoming the first pitcher to no-hit the Nationals since the franchise arrived in D.C. In a quirk of scheduling, Lorenzen got some extra rest and then took the mound tonight for his next start, which just so happened to also come against the Nats.
Any shot at history was vanquished in the bottom of the first, when Lane Thomas was credited with an infield single after busting down the line and beating Turner’s wide throw to first. And one inning later, the Nationals had their first run of the season off Lorenzen, getting the first of Stone Garrett’s two doubles and the first of Jake Alu’s two RBI singles.
Despite the result last week at Citizens Bank Park, the dirty little secret among the Nats was the feeling they actually hit the ball pretty hard against Lorenzen. They didn’t feel like they needed to dramatically alter their approach for this matchup. And by the fourth inning, they proved they weren’t wrong.
"We owed him something," Abrams said. "We had to put up runs. Put up seven, which is a good day."
Before any of that could happen, though, they watched the Phillies put up a six-spot in the top of the inning, all six of the runs scoring with two outs off Joan Adon.
The young right-hander, hoping to bounce back from an abbreviated start cut short by leg cramps, cruised through his first three innings on 40 pitches. And he was one pitch away from closing out the fourth. But a walk of Turner kept the frame alive, and the Phillies took full advantage of it with four consecutive RBI hits, capped by Schwarber’s homer into the first row of the stands in right-center.
"I know he's with the Phillies," Martinez said of Schwarber, who remarkably has belted 17 homers off his former team in 29 head-to-head games the last two seasons. "I love him."
Down 6-1 to a team that has crushed them the last two seasons, the Nationals had every right to roll over. As they’ve already proven more than a few times, they had no intention of doing that. Instead of waiting until the late innings, this time they mounted a furious rally in the bottom of the fourth.
"The mood was upbeat," said rookie Blake Rutherford, who recorded his first career three-hit game. "Everyone knows we fight to the end. We were just trying to put together good at-bats and get it to the next guy."
The rally admittedly was jumpstarted by a dropped fly ball in center field by Johan Rojas, but everything that followed was of the Nats’ doing. Garrett singled. Alu singled in another run. Ildemaro Vargas drew a nine-pitch walk to load the bases. Rutherford responded with a two-run single for the first two RBIs of his big league career.
And before anyone had time to check the updated score (it was 6-4 at that point), Abrams launched Lorenzen’s first pitch deep to right for a three-run homer to cap off a six-spot of their own and improbably give the home team the lead again.
"Adon came in and was a little down," Abrams said. "But I told him we had his back. And we put up six."
There was still a long way to go, a lot more outs to record, for the Nationals to finish this thing off. But in that moment, it almost didn’t matter how the night would end. That moment alone felt like a win in itself for a team that’s starting to put together a string of those kind of moments and for a fan base that’s been waiting for moments like this to start believing again.
"I'll tell you what, it's been fun to watch lately," Finnegan said. "We've had some wild games. We've stuck with it to the last out, never out of it. And to get another one of these wins, that's what good teams do. You win these games, these crazy games when you think you're out of it and all a sudden you're back in it."