There’s no doubt today was a sad day for the Nationals. What most people thought would happen came to fruition in the form of an unprecedented trade of Juan Soto and Josh Bell the Padres for six players, five of whom are prospects.
Plenty more will be written and said about the franchise-altering decision to trade one of the best players to wear a Nationals jersey before the prime of his career.
But lost in the background of today’s news and the subsequent reactions was the reality that the Nationals still had to play a baseball game tonight. And not only were they suddenly without their two best players, they were facing Jacob deGrom, one of the best pitchers in the sport, in his season debut.
“I was relieved," manager Davey Martinez said of the passing of the trade deadline at 6 p.m. ET. "Yeah, I really was. I mean, I felt a different breath of fresh air. And for me, it was about regrouping and saying, 'All right, this is what we need to do moving forward.' So like I said, we're going to go out there and we're gonna compete and we're gonna play hard and we're gonna do some different things. And like I said, I was proud of the boys going out there today and doing what they did.”
After deGrom didn’t play a deciding role in the game while departing a tied game after five innings, the boys were able to take a late lead to win tonight’s game 5-1 in front of 29,878 mostly Mets fans at Nats Park. A small victory on a tough day.
With Soto and Bell on their way to San Diego, the top of Martinez’s lineup was filled by Victor Robles, Luis García and Yadiel Hernandez. Not as formidable as it was with Nos. 22 and 19 in there, but the top three batters would provide the offense tonight.
deGrom faced the minimum through three innings. The only blemish on his ledger was a second-inning single by Keibert Ruiz, who was easily thrown out trying to stretch it into a double. But in the top of the fourth, Robles led off with a single through the left-side gap. With García at the plate, the speedy center fielder was able to steal second and put himself in scoring position.
García, who will be looked upon to now carry much of the Nats offense, delivered an RBI double into right-center field to give the Nats a 1-0 lead on the Mets ace.
"You get out there and you're facing deGrom, right?" said Martinez. "He's gonna bring it, we know he's gonna bring it. And the other boys went out there and they were intense, they were battling. I mean, he still threw the ball well, but we hung in there."
The one-run lead was short-lived, however, as Francisco Lindor hit Victor Arano’s second pitch for a game-tying leadoff home run in the sixth.
But back came that pesky top of the Nats order in the bottom frame. In typical Robles fashion, he was hit by a pitch to get on base ahead of García, who then delivered the big blow. With right-hander Steve Nogosek pitching for deGrom, the young shortstop hit an inside fastball 427 feet into the right-center field seats for a go-ahead two-run home run. Then Hernandez went back-to-back on the very next pitch for a 4-1 lead.
“There's a lot of things that went through my mind when I hit it," García said of his homer, through interpreter Octavio Martinez. "But the first and probably the foremost is just a lot of happiness and excitement.”
“Over the last week, he's been swinging the bat really well," Davey Martinez said of García. "And today was just another good day for him. But he's starting to stay back, he's starting to see pitches. I think he's understanding who he is as a hitter. And he's been a little bit more patient, a little bit more selective. Every now and then you're gonna see him swing at a bad pitch. But we all do that. And he goes up there and when he gets a pitch where he could drive, he's hitting it hard.”
“I come every day with a positive attitude, with a good energy," García said. "I try to give my full effort out on the field. So I just kept the same positive attitude and just try to keep my energy out there and just play the same game I've always played.”
Further down this new-look lineup was Joey Meneses hitting sixth and playing first base. The 30-year-old career minor leaguer was summoned to D.C. earlier today just in case he was needed to play first base. Turns out, he was needed.
In his first major league at-bat, all he had to do was face deGrom. As expected, Meneses struck out on three pitches. He was able to make contact the second time around in the fifth as he flew out to right field.
“The first at-bat, I felt a little nervous," Meneses said via Octavio Martinez. "Things are running a lot, kind of speeding up inside of me. And I knew, obviously, he was throwing very hard, so I was just trying to time him a little bit better. But there were a lot of things running through my head. The second at-bat I kind of calmed myself down. I was able to fly out. Kind of focus like if it was a regular bat. I flew out and everything just kind of followed then.”
His third at-bat was one he will never forget. Facing right-hander Yoan López, Meneses hit a first-pitch fastball for his first career hit, a 405-foot home run to right field, extending the Nats’ lead to 5-1.
“Obviously, the emotions were amazing," he said. "I didn't know what to do. I was a little bit in shock when I first realized what was going on. I didn't know what to do or how to feel. But I was focused on getting my first base hit in the big leagues and, luckily, it turned out to be even better than that.”
Meneses became the sixth Nats player to hit a home run in his big league debut, joining Carter Kieboom (April 26, 2019 vs. Padres), Soto (May 15, 2018 vs. Yankees in the completion of a suspended game), Michael A. Taylor (Aug. 8, 2014 at Mets), Tommy Milone (Sept. 3, 2011 vs. Mets), Ian Desmond (Sept. 10, 2009 vs. Phillies) and Brandon Watson (Aug. 9, 2005 at Astros).
At 30 years and 88 days old, Meneses is the fifth oldest player in major league history to hit a home run in his big league debut.
The Nationals were kept in this seemingly mismatched game by starter Cory Abbott, who pitched five shutout innings of two-hit ball with two walks, three strikeouts and a hit batter.
“Just being around the zone," Abbott said of his success. "I don't know. With the fastball, mixing it up with the slider and then going to the curveball when I needed it. There wasn't much to it, to be honest with you, it's just attacking the hitters.”
The 26-year-old right-hander went toe-to-toe with deGrom and shut down this dangerous Mets lineup.
"I don't have to hit deGrom," he said of facing one of the best pitchers in the league. "So I'm just there, I'm pitching against their hitters. So thankfully, I don't have to face him."
Abbott joined Triple-A teammates Meneses and Josh Palacios, who were recalled from Rochester before the game.
“Basically our motto is: Don't let the Red Wings get hot," said Abbott. "That's kind of how we've gone through. And it's nice to see guys coming up and handling their business and just being prepared.”
He was backed up by strong performances out of the bullpen by Arano, Erasmo Ramirez, Kyle Finnegan and Carl Edwards Jr., the latter two also candidates to be traded before today’s deadline.
“When everything was said and done after 6 p.m., I was kind of relieved that those guys were still here," Davey Martinez said of his relief pitchers. "We were able to get through today and use them the way I felt like they needed to be used and they pitched well.”
What happened earlier today is much more significant for the Nationals in the grand scheme of things. This one win to improve to 36-69 in a lost season doesn’t mean much in the big picture. The organization said with today’s actions it’s focused on the future.
Just don’t tell that to the guys who are still in the Nationals clubhouse.
"My granddaughter, before I came to the ballpark, told me, 'Grandpa, remember, stay positive,'" Davey Martinez said. "So that was the big deal today, to stay positive, and we had a good day, good night.”
“It feels great. Just like anything else," García said of the win. "We come here every day trying to win every game as possible with the same positive energy that we bring to the ballpark. And we try every day to win that game. So it feels great.”