There’s always the next game in baseball. After a rough start to this series with two losses by a combined score of 13-3, the Nationals were finally able to solve the Marlins riddle and earn their first victory against their division rival.
It was a frustrating first two games. It almost became a third. But the Nats settled in, played a (mostly) clean game and won 5-4 in 10 innings in front of 7,566 at loanDepot Park to avoid the second straight sweep at the hands of the Marlins.
And they did it in an unconventional way: The Nationals broke a 3-3 tie in the eighth inning to take a one-run lead, lost it in the ninth and regained it in the 10th.
With Dee Strange-Gordon pinch-running for Nelson Cruz as the automatic runner on second base in the top of the 10th, Victor Robles bunted him over to third and Keibert Ruiz drove in the go-ahead run with a double down the left field line.
“I cannot say enough about Keibert," manager Davey Martinez said after the game. "What a tremendous game he had. Honestly, behind the plate, hitting, everything. Good all-around player and he's getting better. Like I said, every time he's out there, he's getting better. He definitely, for us, was the star of the game.”
“I feel good. Happy, obviously, and more happy because we win," Ruiz said in a joyful clubhouse. "That's the plan, just help the team win. Grateful for this opportunity.”
Victor Arano then came in to record the save and seal the win.
“I mainly focus on trying to locate my pitches," Arano said via interpreter Octavio Martinez after his fourth career save. "Hopefully keep it down and get a ground ball, hopefully to the shortstop, to make sure that runner stays at second. And in generally, just more focused in the whole situation. I'm trying to win the game, so whatever it takes that I can do to win the game."
All of that could have been avoided, however, if the Nationals had tacked on more runs in the eighth and shut down the Marlins in the ninth.
Yadiel Hernandez and Ruiz put two on to start the eighth, with Robles coming in to pinch-run for Hernandez at second. Maikel Franco singled to right to load the bases for Lane Thomas, who was hit by a pitch from Anthony Bender to put the Nats up 4-3.
The Nats had a golden opportunity to pile on the Marlins bullpen, but Alcides Escobar struck out and César Hernández grounded into a double play to end the threat, leaving them with a 4-3 lead and six outs to go.
Enter Kyle Finnegan and Tanner Rainey, who needed to shut down the heart of the Marlins order to give the Nationals the victory and avoid the sweep. Finnegan needed just seven pitches to shut down the Marlins in the eighth inning.
Rainey needed a little more work. A leadoff single, strikeout and two walks loaded the bases, with Rainey needing two more outs. Jazz Chisholm Jr. hit one to Juan Soto, and it looked like Jesús Sánchez might have tied the game on a sacrifice fly. But the Nationals thought Sánchez left the bag early and tagged him out. It appeared to end the game, with the Nats spilling out of their dugout in celebration.
But after review, it was confirmed Sánchez left third base on time, tying the game and giving Rainey his second blown save of the season.
“I wasn't sure if he left early," said Ruiz, who threw the ball to third base for the supposed out. "Franco said yes. And just waiting for the review to see. But they tied it, we come back and thank God we got the win.”
“He got quick. He started getting really quickly, he started opening up," Davey Martinez said of Rainey's struggles in the ninth. "He just had to stay focused and just keep throwing strikes. I mean, he's got nasty stuff. And he doesn't have to throw the turbo sliders like we talk about with two strikes or anytime. But his stuff is nasty. So he just got to work on: Hey, you got the eight, nine hitter and just throw strikes. I mean, he's hard enough to hit. You don't have to strike guys out. Let them put the ball in play and get out of the inning.”
Also out of the bullpen, Carl Edwards Jr. pitched a scoreless seventh inning to bridge Josiah Gray’s outing to the back end of the bullpen.
On the mound to start the game, it was a battle between Gray and Pablo López, who brought his major league-leading 1.05 ERA into this start. Both starters traded leadoff triples to begin their outings, eventually leading to a 1-1 game after the first.
César Hernández led off the game with a triple to right field. After Soto walked, Hernández scored on a wild pitch by López for a quick 1-0 lead.
In the bottom of the frame, Chisholm also tripled to right field and then tied the game on Jesús Aguilar’s ensuing sacrifice fly to center field.
The two starting pitchers differentiated their outings from that point.
The Nationals offense chased López after the third inning, an unusually short start from the Marlins right-hander, who seemed off from the start.
Ruiz hit a leadoff double in the second, moved to third on Franco's flyout and scored on Escobar's double to give the Nats the lead right back in the second. Then an RBI double by César Hernández made it 3-1 with the Nats making a lot of contact off López. This was also the first time they scored more than three runs against the Marlins this season.
Ruiz finished the night 3-for-3 with two doubles, an RBI and two walks to reach base in all five plate appearances for the first time in his career.
“I think just trying to get my pitch early in the count," he said. "Be patient just waiting for my pitch and don't try to do too much. That helps me to see the ball better, I think.”
“I'm so happy for him that he had a game like that today," Davey Martinez said of his catcher. "And hopefully, he'll continue to do that because it gets him going a little bit. But he was awesome.”
The Nationals couldn’t score again in the third, but ran López’s pitch count to 82 by the end of the frame, ending his evening. A much better result than the last time the Nats faced López, when he shut them out over six innings of three-hit ball while striking out six on 84 pitches.
Meanwhile, Gray went on to put together one of his stronger outings by using his four-seam fastball and slider very effectively. He did issue back-to-back hits to start the third and allow the Marlins to make it a 3-2 game. And then Chisholm tied the game at 3-3 in the fifth off a 3-2 fastball that was middle-away from Gray. But other than that, the young right-hander was mostly clean.
The way Gray finished his outing was the most impressive part of his night. After striking out Avasaíl García to end the fifth, Gray struck out the side in the sixth to end his night on an emphatic note. He went slider, slider, curveball to get Brian Anderson, Sánchez, Jacob Stallings swinging.
“Everything," Grays said of what worked well for him. "I felt like I threw a lot of strikes, was in control of all my pitches. The game plan was to just attack the zone. And I think we did just that. And it was a great outing for the team and I'm glad we got the win.”
It was mostly the slider that was working for him. He threw it 42 times and got swings and misses a remarkable 56 percent of the time.
“Just throwing it with conviction," Gray said. "You can't really control what they do with the pitch. just in terms of locating it with a game plan. So every time Keibert calls it down, I'm just throwing it as hard as I can with as much conviction as I can. Get it to the spots I want to get it to. And more times than not, if I get it to the spot I need to get it to, it's going to be a good pitch.”
Davey Martinez was impressed with the use of the slider between Gray and Ruiz, too.
“Yeah, I mean, it was by design, honestly," the skipper said. "You know with that team with all of the right-handed hitters, trying to pump one for a strike and then use your fastball up and then go back to a slider. And they did it well tonight.”
Gray completed six innings for the third time in his last four outings, with six hits, three runs, no walks and seven strikeouts on 95 pitches, 65 strikes.
After two bad losses, it was nice to see the Nationals leave Miami with a win, no matter how crazy it was. Now they hope this carries over to Milwaukee this weekend.