Unsung heroes helped Nats over the weekend

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CINCINNATI – Wherever the Nationals go, the attention always focuses on their big-name players. Your Juan Sotos, Josh Bells, Nelson Cruzes, Josiah Grays, Patrick Corbins, etc.

While all of those stars contributed to the Nats’ three wins over the Reds this weekend, some unsung heroes played a significant role as well.

Not all of them got their fair share of praise over the last three days, partially my own fault for not incorporating them more. So let’s take some time to give them their time in the spotlight.

Lane Thomas is an obvious one, though he did get his fair share after hitting three home runs on Friday night. Those jump off the page, obviously, but he did a lot more this weekend.

Thomas went 7-for-14 with three home runs, a double, four RBIs, a walk and five runs scored in the three games he played in Cincinnati, once again showing his uncanny ability to produce in National League Central ballparks. All along the way, he played perfect defense in the outfield, including a nice sliding catch Saturday afternoon.

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Corbin, Nats hold off Reds for road series win (updated)

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CINCINNATI – It’s been over a month since the Nationals completed a road series win. They took two out of three in San Francisco on April 28-May 1. They have lost five straight since.

That streak ended today as the Nationals beat the Reds 5-4 in front of 16,380 at Great American Ball Park to win their third straight game and therefore this four-game series.

The first inning had a lot of action this Sunday afternoon. Facing right-hander Luis Castillo, who doesn’t have great career numbers against the Nats, the guys in navy blue were able to jump out to an early lead, something they haven’t done in about a week.

César Hernández walked and Lane Thomas singled to start the game, and Josh Bell drove in both with an RBI double to right field, putting the Nats on the board first for the first time since Monday in New York.

But Patrick Corbin ran into trouble of his own in the bottom of the inning. The Reds’ game plan against the southpaw was clear: Attack the fastball and run on the basepaths.

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Teammates help Corbin finally earn first win of year

Patrick Corbin throwing blue home

The Nationals lineup did its part, jumping out to an early lead with a first-inning barrage of hits. Patrick Corbin did his part, producing a rare quality start and departing in the seventh inning with his team ahead.

All that stood between Corbin and his long-anticipated first win of the season was a Nats bullpen that needed some reconfiguring on this night.

With Kyle Finnegan presumably unavailable after pitching back-to-back days, manager Davey Martinez made the aggressive move to put closer Tanner Rainey on the mound to face the heart of the Rockies’ lineup in the eighth inning. And after Rainey retired the side, it was veteran Steve Cishek entrusted with the ninth, his team’s lead having just been padded to four runs.

There was no save in the end, but Cishek did finish off a satisfying 7-3 victory for the Nationals that finally got Corbin in the win column for the first time in 10 tries this year.

"It was going to come," Martinez said. "And I told him: 'Don't fight it. Don't worry about the wins and losses. It's going to come. Just keep pitching, keep doing what you're doing.' And tonight was a perfect example. He went out there and pitched well, kept us in the game. We scored some runs, and he got his first one out of the way."

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Bullpen blows first lead, Nats drop series in Pittsburgh (updated)

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PITTSBURGH – The Nationals’ formula for success this season, tried and true through the first 10 games, went awry this afternoon at PNC Park. They got the five-inning start that to date has guaranteed victory, only to watch Patrick Corbin fade in the sixth and one of their most-trusted relievers, Steve Cishek, give up the lead in the seventh.

Throw in their worst defensive showing of the year, and what was shaping up to be a simple win over the Pirates in their series finale instead morphed into a 5-3 loss that devolved rather abruptly on this 42-degree Easter Sunday.

“Those little things, we got to clean up,” said manager Davey Martinez in one of several rare displays of public criticism of his team over the last few days. “We can’t give teams extra outs. We’re not going to win games like that.”

Corbin’s sixth-inning woes turned a three-run lead into a one-run lead. Cishek then gave up three runs himself in the bottom of the seventh, the first time the Nationals’ so-called “A” bullpen has blown a late lead.

There were other mistakes along the way. Third baseman Maikel Franco was charged with three errors, two of them on one play. The lineup failed to take advantage of late scoring opportunities after plating three early runs. And Josh Bell was narrowly thrown out at the plate trying to score from first on Franco’s seventh-inning double to left, aggressively waved around by third base coach Gary DiSarcina.

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Deep bullpen performing exactly as hoped so far

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ATLANTA – It’s been a long time since a Nationals manager has had at least four relievers he trusts to pitch late in games. It really didn’t happen at any point during Davey Martinez’s first four seasons on the job. Dusty Baker at one point had the “Law Firm” bullpen of Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle, but that was a trio, not a quartet.

You may have to go all the way back to 2012 – when Davey Johnson could regularly count on Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Craig Stammen and Ryan Mattheus to pitch in meaningful situations – to find anything resembling the Nats’ current situation.

It’s early, yes. They’ve played only seven games. But the quartet that closed out Wednesday’s 3-1 victory over the Braves – Kyle Finnegan, Doolittle, Steve Cishek and Tanner Rainey – has quickly emerged into as reliable a relief corps as we’ve seen around here in a long time. And if Hunter Harvey’s eye-opening season debut Monday was a sign of things to come, and if Clippard is headed this way sometime soon once he finishes building his arm up at Triple-A Rochester, the Nationals might just have themselves the makings of a quality, deep bullpen.

“However we line up is going to be a really good combination,” Rainey said. “No matter what the matchups are, whoever gets in the game, honestly, with all nine, 10, 12, however many guys we’ve got down there, I think the bullpen’s been really good so far.”

It has. Though there were a couple of blow-ups during lopsided losses to the Mets and Braves, the relief corps for the most part has been quite effective, certainly when given an opportunity to take over in the sixth inning following a strong starting performance. In their three wins so far, the bullpen has allowed a total of two runs over 11 2/3 innings.

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Nats ride Gray and bullpen to series win in Atlanta

Josiah Gray throw gray away

ATLANTA – There are more than 5 1/2 months of baseball left to be played in 2022, and there’s still every reason to believe when this season is complete the Braves will be right there among the National League’s best while the rebuilding Nationals are looking up at a number of other clubs.

One series in mid-April does not change the outlook of either team’s chances this year. That doesn’t, however, mean the Nats can’t leave town this evening and fly to Pittsburgh feeling awfully good about themselves for what they just accomplished.

Shaking off a blowout loss Tuesday night, they bounced right back and won today’s finale 3-1, capturing the three-game series against the defending World Series champions and in the process establishing the formula for success they’ll try to mimic as much as possible over these next 5 1/2 months.

“I feel like it’s a confidence boost, right?” reliever Steve Cishek said. “You got a young team, and you take out the defending champs? I mean, their lineup is incredible. We threw the ball really well the first game and today. That’s a huge confidence boost for the young guys.”

The Nationals got a strong outing today from one of their young starters, with Josiah Gray tossing five scoreless innings, allowing only one hit. They got some early offense from an opportunistic lineup that jumped on Braves ace Max Fried. And then Davey Martinez handed over the final four innings to his four best relievers: Kyle Finnegan, Sean Doolittle, Cishek and Tanner Rainey.

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