CINCINNATI – The Nationals, as anyone who has watched them all season knows, don’t hit home runs. The Reds, as anyone who has watched them in recent months knows, try to win games less with power and more with speed.
So wouldn’t you know all but one run scored in tonight’s series opener at Great American Ball Park came via the long ball. Including some really big ones from two of the Nats’ most important hitters.
Lane Thomas and Joey Meneses combined to launch three homers from the sixth through 10th innings, with Thomas’ second blast of the night serving as the final blow in the Nationals’ come-from-behind, 6-3 victory in extras.
Jake Alu’s latest clutch hit, an RBI double over the first baseman’s head, drove home automatic runner Ildemaro Vargas with the go-ahead run off Cincinnati closer Alexis Díaz. It was Alu’s third RBI in as many days since his promotion from Triple-A Rochester to replace traded third baseman Jeimer Candelario.
"He gives himself a chance," manager Davey Martinez told reporters afterward. "He battles up there. Even though he gets to two strikes, he battles and battles and battles until he gets a pitch to hit. Does a great job of moving the guys over, then driving them in."
Thomas then provided the finishing touch, taking Díaz deep to left to cap a three-run rally.
And thanks to 3 2/3 scoreless innings of relief from Amos Willingham, Jordan Weems, Jose A. Ferrer, Andres Machado and Kyle Finnegan, the Nationals improved to 4-1 in extra innings this season, a dramatic improvement from their 5-18 record the last two years.
"These guys, they're really starting to learn a lot," Martinez said. "I'm really starting to learn about them, too. Some of them, you put them into situations, and they've got no heartbeat. They're just out there and doing everything they can to try to win us games. I love that about this team. They're relentless. The young guys are playing well. They want the ball. They're hungry. And it's really good to see."
The Nationals did all this after looking lost at the plate the vast majority of the night against Graham Ashcraft. They finally got to the Reds starter late, though. In a big way.
Thomas did it first, blasting a solo home run to left-center in the top of the sixth and bringing back memories of his three-homer game here last year. Two innings later, Meneses made his own memory with his latest big blast.
With two outs, Thomas on first base after beating out a slow roller up the line moments earlier and Ashcraft still on the mound for his eighth inning of work, Meneses reached down and drove a slider to left-center, the ball sailing 406 feet for the game-tying homer.
Meneses, owner of only two homers in his first 80 games of the season, has now clubbed seven in his last 22 games. He saluted first base coach Eric Young Jr. as he rounded the bag, then donned the colonial wig upon returning to the dugout having tied the game at three.
"Our at-bats got way better the last part of the game there," Martinez said. "Joey with the big home run to tie it up, and Lane with a couple big homers for us, too. The bats came alive there."
That blast got Patrick Corbin off the hook for what would’ve been a tough-luck loss after the left-hander rebounded from a tough start to his night that included three early home runs surrendered.
Nick Senzel got it started in the bottom of the first, blasting an 0-1 fastball to right. The ball may have traveled only 350 feet, but that was enough to clear the fence at Great American Ball Park (and seven of the 29 other major league parks) for a 1-0 lead.
The crowd barely had time to celebrate Senzel’s homer before Matt McLain drove Corbin’s very next pitch to center for a far more authoritative home run. McLain’s 422-foot shot was deep enough to clear the fence in 27 of 30 ballparks, and it left the Nationals in a 2-0 hole.
Corbin would settle down briefly to make it through the rest of the first and second innings with no more damage, but then he had to face Elly De La Cruz, the dynamic rookie shortstop who terrorized the Nats last month in D.C. and continued to do it tonight in Cincinnati. When Corbin left a 3-1 slider over the plate, De La Cruz struck it with enough force to create a 113-mph exit velocity and a 398-foot laser of a home run to left.
So that was three homers in three innings off Corbin, whose season total now stands at 24, only three shy of his total last year. But to his credit, the left-hander barely gave up anything else and actually departed having produced a quality start.
"Not the most ideal start," he told reporters afterward. "But I felt pretty good. And I think after that, I was able to keep the ball down a little bit. They're an aggressive team, and I got some ground balls, the defense played behind me. And we put up enough zeroes to allow the offense to come back, tie it up and then eventually win it in extras."
Only three more Reds batters reached against Corbin: one via hit, one via walk, one via error. Martinez let his starter take the mound for the seventh, then after he retired Joey Votto on his 83rd and final pitch of the evening, Martinez turned to his bullpen and hoped his lineup could make up a two-run deficit.
That’s exactly what the lineup did. Not by manufacturing runs. But by launching them into the bleachers.