Nats take unconventional path to beat Tigers (updated)

Much as major league managers wish it wasn’t so, the path to victory on any given day isn’t always going to be a straight one. The Nationals made life easy on Davey Martinez during Saturday’s low-drama win over the Tigers, getting a quality start from Patrick Corbin and clutch hits from the lineup to take the lead, allowing the skipper to use his traditional bullpen alignment late to close it out.

This afternoon did not afford Martinez such luxuries. Though the Nationals stormed out of the gates to take a five-run lead and ultimately rapped out 18 hits, they still needed several escape acts from their top relievers – some of them in unfamiliar roles – to emerge with a 6-4 win over Detroit.

In order to capture this weekend series, the Nats not only needed home runs from backups Riley Adams and Ildemaro Vargas, plus another four-hit game from Jeimer Candelario against his former team. They needed Josiah Gray to gut his way through five innings of one-run ball despite six walks. And then they needed Kyle Finnegan (owner of nine saves) to pitch out of a jam in the sixth and return for the seventh, ultimately setting up Carl Edwards Jr. and Hunter Harvey to close out perhaps the weirdest win of the season.

"It was definitely weird," Martinez said. "We did some things just to get out of some jams."

Edward, Harvey and Finnegan each pitched Saturday, in that order, with Finnegan earning his ninth save of the season in a 5-2 victory. Not 24 hours later, Martinez was summoning Finnegan out of the bullpen to clean up a sixth-inning jam created by Andres Machado, then asking him to return for the seventh as well.

It wasn’t clean, but Finnegan did get through that with a two-run lead intact. Edwards then pitched a 1-2-3 eighth, and Harvey finished it off in the ninth for his second career save.

"For me, it was a big turning point right there," Martinez said of Finnegan's performance in the top of the sixth. "They had momentum, and we had to stop the fire."

The Nationals set the tone for the afternoon right from the outset, jumping out to a 3-0 lead behind a barrage of first-inning hits. They had five in total, all singles, off Detroit starter Joey Wentz, including four in a row from Lane Thomas, Candelario, Joey Meneses and Stone Garrett to open their game.

Then the Nats turned to their most obvious sources of power to expand the lead: Adams and Ildemaro Vargas. OK, so maybe those two bench players aren’t typically who you think of when you need power, but on this day they were exactly what the team needed.

Adams, giving Keibert Ruiz a much-needed breather behind the plate, ambushed Wentz’s first pitch of the second and drove it deep to left for his second homer in his last three spot starts. He would finish 4-for-4, adding a single and two doubles to his homer, needing only the triple for a most unexpected cycle.

"The day as a whole, I was getting back to where I feel comfortable," Adams said. "Not expanding the zone, getting pitches in the zone and being aggressive. I'm sure we talked about it in spring training, but it's been a goal of mine to be more aggressive and swing at strikes. I think I was able to accomplish that today. That was the best part."

Vargas, meanwhile, launched a two-homer of his own to left in the third, knocking Wentz from the game and leaving the Nationals with a 6-1 lead.

"The one thing I can guarantee you is 100 percent we work hard off the field, preparing for when we do get in the game," Vargas said of himself and the team's other bench players who contributed today, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "I know Riley, as well as (Michael Chavis), we all do what we have to in the cage, taking our swings as well as our groundballs in the field, doing whatever it takes to be prepared and go into the game whenever we're needed."

That should’ve felt comfortable, but it didn’t for two reasons: 1) The Nats didn’t make the most of several opportunities to really put the game out of reach, going 2-for-16 with runners in scoring position, and 2) Gray walked a tightrope throughout his five innings on the mound.

The 25-year-old’s impressive growth this season has come in large part from his ability to fix the mechanical flaws that made his four-seam fastball tail high and wide to his arm side too often last season, leading to a National League-high 66 walks. Anybody watching him today, though, couldn’t help but have flashbacks to 2022, as Gray sprayed his fastball well to that side of the plate with alarming consistency.

Gray wound up throwing only nine of his 28 four-seamers for strikes, the primary reason he matched his career high with six walks. To his immense credit, he overcame that obvious flaw and limited the damage to one run over five laborious innings, getting the Tigers to go 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position while he was on the mound.

"The six walks definitely is a bummer," he said. "And I felt really good pregame, in the bullpen, before the game. Then I got out there and things just didn't go the way I wanted to. Hats off to the offense for putting up six runs in the first three innings, because if this is a tight game, I think it could've gotten ugly. It wasn't what I wanted to do today, but I made the big pitch and only gave up one today."

Unable to locate his four-seamer all afternoon, Gray finally turned to his sinker and cutter to get through a 1-2-3 top of the fifth. His pitch count was only 88 at that point, but given the winding path it took to get there, Martinez decided not to push it and went to his bullpen right there.

That plan didn’t exactly go as planned when Machado retired only one of the five batters he faced. Finnegan had to come in much earlier than usual to escape that jam with a 6-3 lead intact. And then it was up to the rest of the reconfigured bullpen to fight its way through the rest of the game and ensure the Nationals wouldn’t squander all that early offense.

"When you let teams creep around, it's never good," Martinez said. "We scored all those runs, but we needed to keep tacking on, keep tacking on. And we didn't do that today. But our bullpen comes in, Josiah gave us what we needed and we ended up finishing the game."

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