Nats turn to unlikely contributors in win over Angels

ANAHEIM, Calif. – To beat the Angels tonight, the Nationals simply needed to get home runs from Josh Bell, Yadiel Hernandez and Nelson Cruz, two clutch hits from Maikel Franco, 5 1/3 solid innings from Josiah Gray and effective work from a bullpen that turned to none other than Erasmo Ramirez for the most high-leverage situation of the game.

Hey, whatever works, right?

This 7-3 victory on a lovely Saturday evening in Orange County may not have gone by the book. But at this point, the Nationals can’t afford to stick to a book that at times during the season’s first month hasn’t worked.

Contributions can come in a variety of ways, from a variety of players. On this night, that included a much-needed power display from the slumping Cruz and two big innings of relief from a guy who spent the season’s first two weeks at Triple-A Rochester and until now had only pitched with the Nats trailing, except for one appearance with them leading by eight runs.

That would be Ramirez, the 32-year-old journeyman reliever who was entrusted with the seventh and eighth innings tonight, stared down the heart of the Angels’ imposing lineup and lived to tell about it. The right-hander got into a two-out jam in the seventh when he surrendered back-to-back singles to Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, but he proceeded to get Anthony Rendon to fly out to left on the next pitch, leaving the former Nationals star third baseman 0-for-8 in the series.

"I always play for the excitement," Ramirez said. "I love baseball. I love myself. I'm back to being healthy, and the manager giving me the opportunity is just another spot of excitement. Having the manager's trust to put you in that kind of situation when the team is winning is something you don't want to give up."

Even though typical setup man Kyle Finnegan was warming in the bullpen, Davey Martinez entrusted Ramirez to re-take the mound for the eighth. And as he retired the side in order, he trotted back to the dugout with a wide grin on his face, perhaps having just earned himself the right to start pitching in more high-leverage situations.

"He attacks the strike zone," Martinez said. "He knows how to pitch. We gave him an opportunity, and he did great."

Tanner Rainey then closed it out in the ninth in a non-save situation, securing his eighth straight scoreless appearance to begin the season, not to mention a well-played victory for the visitors.

A road trip that had seen loads of offense came to a screeching halt Friday night when the Nationals were shut out in the series opener. But they jumped right back on the horse tonight, finally hitting for power.

Bell got things started with a 425-foot homer to center, his fourth of the season. Two batters (and one inning) later, Hernandez kept his torrid road trip going with a 390-foot homer to right-center, leaving the 34-year-old outfielder 13-for-23 with five extra-base hits and two walks since the team headed west. A pair of walks followed by a pair of singles, capped by Franco’s two-run base hit to left-center, made it 4-0 Nationals in the fourth.

"Two things for me that stood out: We got the ball up, and also we were on time throughout the whole game," Martinez said of his team's offensive approach. "We do those two things, we're going to put the ball in play and hit the ball hard."

And then came the biggest blast of all, from the source most in need of such a blast.

It’s been a dismal opening month for Cruz, who not only entered tonight’s game with a .147/.234/.211 slash line but also a 58 percent groundball rate that dwarfs his career average of 42 percent. There were no ground balls off the 41-year-old’s bat in this one, though. Cruz did strike out in his first two at-bats (and again in his final two at-bats) but he made up for it all with a laser of a two-run homer down the left field line in the top of the fifth.

"Just stayed with my approach," he said. "Believe in the work I put in every day. ... The pitch was the right one, and I guess I put the right swing on it."

All that run support was appreciated by Gray, who mowed through the Angels' lineup for 3 2/3 innings, allowing only leadoff man Taylor Ward to reach base while retiring everybody else. Then came a brief, but costly, hiccup with two outs in the bottom of the fourth. Gray proceeded to serve up a home run to Jared Walsh, walked Max Stassi and then served up another homer to Brandon Marsh, turning a 4-0 lead into a 4-3 lead in a matter of minutes.

Gray would bounce back from that hiccup, though, retiring five of the next six batters he faced, striking out Trout with a 2-2 slider that left the 24-year-old pumping his fist as he stalked off the mound.

"It means a lot," Gray said. "Trout, Ohtani, Rendon are as accomplished as they come. Being able to trust my stuff and go out there with full confidence and be able to get those guys out is just another boost to my confidence. I can go out there every outing on the mound and know that my stuff plays at this level and I can get the best hitters out."

Like Joan Adon the previous night, Gray’s final line (three runs allowed in 5 1/3 innings) won’t draw much attention. But like Adon, there were some legitimate moments of promise along the way.

"He battled, and he got out of some big moments," Martinez said. "And for me, that's just a learning curve for him. Every time we see him go out there every five days, he's starting to get better, he's starting to stay within himself, he's breathing a lot better. It was a big day for him, and I talked to him about that: 'You're getting a whole better at staying in the moment and making your next pitch.' "

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