Nats turn to homers, bullpen to secure win No. 70 (updated)

ATLANTA – With his typically station-to-station lineup suddenly in home run mode, Davey Martinez decided midway through tonight’s series opener at Truist Park he was going to go all-in in search of win No. 70.

That number, arbitrary as it may be, was a stated goal for the Nationals and their manager in recent weeks, a nice round number that would represent a 15-game improvement from last season, no small achievement (even if it’s still a long way from the number required to play in October).

So when presented with the opportunity to beat the Braves tonight in Game 160, Martinez went for it. He fired every bullet he had in his bullpen, trying to coax every last out from his best arms against an Atlanta club that had already secured 103 wins, a division title and home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

That meant five – yes, five – mid-inning pitching changes. It meant asking Hunter Harvey to record five outs on 31 pitches. And it ultimately meant asking Kyle Finnegan to pitch the ninth to finish off a 10-6 victory that secured that coveted 70th win.

"It's nice getting to 70 wins, especially after last year," Harvey said. "Everybody thinking we're not a great team, and then coming out and winning 70 is awesome. I'm just glad to be a part of it."

Five home runs, matching a season high, put the Nationals in a position to win. The bullpen then locked it down, posting four zeros to close out a long, but satisfying ballgame for the visitors.

The Nats know they can’t be satisfied with a 70-90 record with two games to go. But they know they can appreciate the progress they made this year to get to that figure after a dismal 55-107 mark in 2022.

"Every win is important, but to get to 70 when, honestly ... when we started the season, we didn't know to expect," Martinez said. "It feels good. We've got two more games. I'm hoping to get 71 tomorrow."

It had been 13 days since Trevor Williams last pitched, the Nationals opting to give the struggling right-hander time to rest his arm and clear his mind before coming back for one final start to a disappointing season. The result of all that? Not a whole lot changed.

Williams gave up only two runs to the best lineup in baseball, but he did so while allowing 10 batters to reach base (seven hits, two walks, one hit-by-pitch). He threw his 75th pitch three batters into the fourth, and that’s as far as Martinez was willing to push him.

The manager took the ball from his starter, whose season ended with a 6-10 record, 5.55 ERA, only 144 1/3 innings (by far the fewest of any major leaguer who made at least 30 starts this year) and questions about how he’ll fit into the Nationals’ 2024 plans. (He’s under contract for $7 million.)

"I'm just thankful my body was able to hold up all year," he said. "It's a big step forward for me. I don't know how many innings I ended up with, but for me to have that as a baseline going into next year is only going to help me be ready and sustain me for next year."

Williams’ start tonight didn’t figure into the outcome, because the two teams kept trading blows the rest of the way until someone came out on top.

A Nats lineup that scored all of one run in 18 innings in Baltimore to begin the week was shut out through three tonight by Braves fill-in starter Allan Winans before finally kicking into gear in the fourth. And how did these guys accomplish that? By doing something that has been so difficult for them to do all year long: Hit the ball out of the park.

Carter Kieboom got the home run barrage started with a three-run blast down the left field line in the top of the fourth, his first homer in exactly one month and the first extra-base hit he’s ever delivered in 10 games played in his hometown.

"It's pretty cool," he said. "It's up there, but honestly, I'm just happy to be playing still. We've got two more games left. I'm fortunate it gets to be in my backyard, but I'll take a home run anywhere, to be honest."

Jake Alu continued the trend two batters later when he drove a 2-0 pitch to right-center for his second career homer to complete a four-run rally.

His team now leading, Martinez decided to go all-in on trying to secure win No. 70, which meant some aggressive bullpen management. Andrés Machado, who threw only seven pitches and retired two of the three batters he faced, was pulled in favor of Jose A. Ferrer, who promptly made a mess of the fifth inning.

The rookie lefty retired only one of the four batters he faced, a stretch that included three singles and some poor decisions by both Luis García (who tried an ill-advised glove-flip to second) and Ferrer (who compounded matters by throwing that errant throw into the camera well for another error). By the time the inning ended, with Jordan Weems having replaced Ferrer, the Braves had four runs on the board and had retaken the lead.

No problem, because the Nationals answered right back, with yet another barrage of homers. Keibert Ruiz led off the sixth with a shot to right, his 18th of the season. Three batters later, Dominic Smith greeted lefty Brad Hand with an opposite-field, two-run blast. It was Smith’s sixth homer in September, his 12th of the season, but his first that either tied the game or gave the Nats the lead after the fifth inning.

"This is something that I've been searching for all year," Smith said. "It's something I know I can do. It's later in the year. I wish it happened earlier in the year. I wish it happened in April. But the fact that I figured some things out, I feel good up there. I feel like I'm myself. ... I'm happy that I got back to that, and I just look forward to building on that and not forgetting that during the offseason."

Add a Lane Thomas leadoff shot in the seventh (his 28th of the year), three Atlanta fielding errors contributing to two more runs, and the Nats put themselves in position to secure that oh-so-important 70th win.

"We know we're out of it, but we still want to compete at a high level," Smith said. "It shows the potential of this group that we can compete and we can go toe-to-toe with some of the better teams in this league."

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