There are far loftier goals on the Nationals’ checklist, certainly once the calendar flips to 2024. This is a franchise that won’t consider the rebuild it embarked on two years ago a true success until it’s playing in October again.
But it takes steps to get there, and today the Nats took a meaningful step on their projected path back to contention: With a 10-7 victory over the Red Sox that proved far more tenuous than it should have been, they secured their 55th win, matching their total from last season with 40 games still remaining on the schedule.
Nobody ever deemed another 55-107 season acceptable. Improvement was always expected this year. But at this rate, the improvement is going to be significant, the kind not often found from one year to the next.
The Nats are now on pace for 73 wins this season, an 18-game improvement. That would match the best one-year improvement in club history, one that came from 2011-12 when an 80-win upstart turned into a 98-win division champion.
"It's fun, because I preach all the time about keeping things simple, doing the little things," manager Davey Martinez said. "The baserunning. Throwing strikes. Getting outs. Playing good defense. And it's come to fruition. When you can do those things, you have a chance to win consistently. And we've been doing that for the last month. It's been a lot of fun."
"I love what I'm seeing," manager Davey Martinez said. "I love the way these guys are playing. I love the way our young guys have stepped up. Our starting pitching is giving us a chance to win some games. And our bullpen has been really good. I'm proud of these guys. They keep going out there, they keep playing hard, and good things are going to happen."
This team’s winning percentage keeps going up, thanks to a 17-9 record since July 21, during which time they’ve won six of eight series. Many of those series have come against contenders, including this one against a Red Sox club that’s trying to hang in there in a division and wild card race overflowing with hopefuls.
"Hopefully some of these guys realize we can compete with anybody," said Patrick Corbin, one of the only remaining links to the team's last winning season. "We've been in a lot of games. We could've won a lot more, I think. Hopefully these are things everyone in this clubhouse is learning from and trying to get better."
It looked like the Nationals would cakewalk their way to today’s victory after exploding for five runs in the fifth and three more in the sixth to open up a commanding 9-1 lead. But with Corbin pulled following six strong innings of one-run ball on 96 pitches, the Nats bullpen turned this one back into a competitive game.
Left-hander Robert Garcia made a mess of the seventh, loading the bases via two singles and a walk, then serving up a grand slam to No. 9 batter Luis Urías. Allowed to continue pitching in search of the elusive third out of the inning, Garcia then walked Rob Refsnyder and served up a two-run homer to Rafael Devers, the lefty-lefty matchup paying no dividends there, before Martinez finally signaled for righty Andrés Machado from the bullpen.
Things settled down after that, with Machado, Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan combining to record the final seven outs without allowing Boston to score again, Finnegan stranding a pair of runners in scoring position in the ninth. And so this was still a meaningful win to cap off another series victory.
"To beat those guys two out of three games, that's pretty awesome," Martinez said.
The Nationals have turned things around over the last month primarily by winning the late innings, both at the plate and on the mound. Today, they won the early and middle innings to open up a large lead.
Corbin, on the heels of a wild start in Philadelphia in which he walked seven batters but allowed only one hit, was much more around the strike zone today. The lefty didn’t walk anyone during his six innings, and the only run he surrendered came via Triston Casas’ leadoff homer in the third.
Otherwise, Corbin looked as sharp as he has in a long time, and in the process he lowered his ERA to 4.71, the best it has been since May 20.
"I know today I didn't walk any," he said. "You just try to make competitive pitches. Maybe I was in the zone a little bit more today. I was just happy with the results."
Corbin's teammates provided ample run support, too, though it took a little while for the bats to get going. They went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position against Red Sox starter Chris Sale, their only run to that point scoring when Jeter Downs walked, stole second, took third on a throwing error and came home when Devers couldn’t handle Joey Meneses’ grounder to third.
Once Sale (making his second start off the injured list) was pulled with two on and one out in the fifth, the Nationals got down to business. Meneses ripped a two-run double off reliever Josh Winckowski, then scored on Stone Garrett’s hustle double to left. A two-run single by Riley Adams completed the five-spot, but they weren’t done.
Meneses again delivered a two-run double the following inning, giving him five RBIs on the afternoon. And when Garrett (who finished with three RBIs) lofted a long fly ball to center to bring home Meneses via a sacrifice fly, the home team led 9-1 and left the crowd of 25,445 with every reason to believe this one was in the bag.
It still was by day’s end. The Nationals still earned win No. 55. They just made everybody sweat a little to get there.
"It was definitely a tough beginning for us this season," Meneses said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Thank god that this last month we've been playing a lot better. We feel a lot more confident out there in everybody's ability. It was obvious, I feel like, that we were going to start slow. We don't have a bunch of All-Stars in this clubhouse, and generally that will create some of that. But we're playing very well."