Robles' clutch hit, controversial call, give Nats a win (updated)

The throw from Juan Soto was perfect, probably the best he’s made all year, no matter which uniform he was wearing. The catch and tag by Austin Nola was on point as well, nabbing a late-sliding César Hernández, whose front foot crossed above the plate without touching it. And as Paul Emmel made the out signal, the crowd of 33,661 at Nationals Park groaned in agony, believing their former favorite player had just prevented his old team from taking a lead in the bottom of the seventh.

Davey Martinez, though, immediately yelled out to Emmel from the first base dugout. He wanted the play reviewed, not to see if Hernández had slid under the tag, but to see if Nola had violated Major League Baseball’s controversial rule preventing catchers from blocking the plate before they’re in possession of the ball.

"I always get up to the top (step of the dugout) to look," Martinez said. "And right away, I told (bench coach Tim Bogar): Check that, because I think he blocked the plate for sure."

And after an agonizing wait, Martinez and the Nationals caught a rare break. Officials in New York deemed Nola had indeed impeded Hernández’s path to the plate, so the run counted and the Nats had themselves a 4-3 lead they would hold onto en route to a wild victory over the Padres.

That victory also included dramatic, back-to-back homers by Yadiel Hernandez and Joey Meneses in the bottom of the sixth, plus the 2,000th hit of Nelson Cruz’s career. (He’s the first player ever to reach that milestone while wearing a Nationals uniform.)

"It's special," Cruz said. "You always have thoughts about it, but it's different to be reality. I had to play for a long time to get 2,000 hits. It's definitely an honor."

But the biggest moment of the night came with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, when Victor Robles shot a first-pitch single to right off a 100-mph fastball from San Diego reliever Luis García, and Gary DiSarcina waved Hernández around third.

"I was just trying to look for a good pitch, and try to do some damage with it," Robles said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Try to help the team any way possible."

Soto had thrown out only one runner at the plate all season, and that actually came in his final game as a National only 12 days ago. He appeared to have his first outfield assist as a Padre tonight, and in a huge spot to boot, when he uncorked a perfect one-hop throw to Nola to beat Hernández. Emmel signaled out, but the Nats dugout immediately questioned the call.

Nola’s left was in front of the plate for a second as he set up to receive the throw, then he pulled it back and was standing in the middle of the plate as he made the tag. Nevertheless, the call was overturned, which prompted San Diego manager Bob Melvin to charge out of his dugout arguing and instantly be ejected by Emmel.

As he initially trotted in from right field thinking he had recorded the third out, Soto motioned lovingly toward Robles. Once the call was overturned and Soto had to return to his position, his longtime friend motioned right back at him.

"When supposedly they initially called him out, he was in front me running to their dugout, and he made a gesture like: 'I got you,' " Robles said. "So when he ran back out, I returned the favor and did the same gesture to him."

After all that, the Nationals held a 4-3 lead. And thanks to scoreless innings of relief from Steve Cishek, Kyle Finnegan, Hunter Harvey and Carl Edwards Jr., they held that lead the rest of the way to emerge with the win.

"They played hard, and they played to the end," Martinez said. "That was a lot of fun."

Though tonight’s crowd did stand and salute Soto and Josh Bell as each stepped to the plate in the top of the first, the ovation wasn’t as loud or lengthy as it was Friday night. Over time, this will just become the new normal, as it has with Bryce Harper and the Phillies, Max Scherzer and the Mets, Trea Turner and the Dodgers.

And as they did in the series opener, the Nationals did a pretty good job containing their former teammates. Soto did deliver an RBI single in the fourth, and drew his first two walks of the weekend, but otherwise was kept off base. And Bell, after going 0-for-5 with a walk on Friday, went 0-for-4 with a walk tonight.

The Padres’ damage off Aníbal Sánchez came from other sources, namely Manny Machado and Trent Grisham. Each launched solo homers off the 38-year-old right-hander, Machado going deep to left to lead off the third and Grisham blasting his to right with one out in the fourth.

Those were the ninth and 10th homers surrendered by Sánchez in 30 innings this season, a mammoth total for someone who has made only six big league starts. But to his credit, the wily veteran managed not to give up much more than those two big blasts, and he departed having given his team a chance, down 3-0 after five innings.

"I think it's happened often, the last couple games, a lot of solo home runs," Sánchez said. "And today's one of those days. At the end, I got out of the game and I gave an opportunity to the team to catch up with the Padres."

It took more than five innings for the rest of the Nationals to do something at the plate. But once they did, it was worth the wait.

Shut out through the fifth by Yu Darvish, the Nats finally strung together three straight two-out hits in the sixth. The first was a single by Cruz, the 1,999th of his long career. The second was a two-run, opposite-field homer by Hernandez. And the third was the biggest of all: Meneses’ 415-foot moonshot down the left field line to tie the game and extend the out-of-nowhere, 30-year-old rookie’s remarkable power streak.

Meneses, called up Aug. 2 to take one of the roster spots that had been held by Soto and Bell, has now hit five homers in his first nine major league games. According to Baseball-Reference, the only player in modern history to hit more than five was the Rockies’ Trevor Story in 2016.

"It was just the other day that I knew he was 30 years old," Sánchez said. "I don't know he didn't come to The Show earlier. The way that I see he plays right now, he deserves everything that's happening to him right now. Being a minor leaguer for many years is not easy, and he did it. He worked hard, and now he's showing what he can do on the field."

Game 116 lineups: Nats vs. Padres
García day-to-day with groin strain, Cruz returns ...
 

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