Vargas' late blast propels Nats to win in Seattle (updated)

SEATTLE – The focus of the remainder of the Nationals’ season is going to be on the handful of young players they’re now trying to build around, a group that will see its highest-profile addition yet Friday night when top pitching prospect Cade Cavalli makes his major league debut.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still some room for an older player or two to take advantage of the opportunity he’s being given to make a name for himself, and possibly earn his way into the Nats’ 2023 plans as well.

We’ve already seen Joey Meneses do it with six homers in his first three weeks in the big leagues. Now how about Ildemaro Vargas, the 31-year-old utility infielder who has suddenly become the Nationals’ everyday third baseman and just finished off a strong road trip with a bang.

Vargas’ two-run homer off Mariners closer Paul Sewald with two outs in the top of the ninth this afternoon lifted the Nats to an unexpected 3-1 victory in the finale of a brief, two-game series. It was Vargas’ second homer of this West Coast trip, his previous one coming in his first at-bat in San Diego during Thursday night’s win over the Padres.

"I've always worked hard to get an opportunity like this one, to where I get an opportunity to play every day," Vargas said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "I'm very thankful to the team, the organization, for the opportunity I've gotten. I'm just trying to take advantage and keep working hard and contribute any way I can."

Whether Vargas has a long-term future with the Nationals remains to be seen. But this much is certain: He has fully supplanted Maikel Franco as the everyday third baseman over the last couple weeks, to the point where Franco is now buried on the bench and in danger of being released once young infielder Luis García comes off the injured list (perhaps as soon as Friday).

"I'm trying to show them that I can help the team win any way possible," Vargas said. "Do the little things. Play all over the place. I'm going to prepare as much as I can, especially for next year, and show them I'm ready to play. Hopefully I get the opportunity."

Vargas’ blast on a 1-2 fastball from Sewald broke a 1-1 tie and gave Kyle Finnegan the opportunity to close it out in the bottom of the ninth. Finnegan, who had already recorded the final out of the eighth, stranded a runner on third to finish this victory off and send the Nationals home with a 3-3 record on the trip, their pitching staff having surrendered only 13 total runs over those six games.

"They've been pitching really well," manager Davey Martinez said. "This whole road trip, they were outstanding. From starters to the relievers, they pitched really well. That part of it, we're doing good. We've got to make some more opportunities and try to drive in runs. Especially with less than two outs, guys in scoring position. We've got to somehow get those guys in. But I can't say enough about how hard we've played."

Despite multiple opportunities to add to a 1-0 lead they held since the top of the first, the Nationals could not push another runner across the plate until the very end. And that put an extra amount of pressure on their bullpen to keep the shutout going all afternoon.

They got some excellent work out of Hunter Harvey in the fifth, Victor Arano in the sixth (and part of the seventh) and Carl Edwards Jr. in the seventh (and part of the eighth). Edwards, though, would find himself right in the middle of the biggest moment of the game: facing dynamic Mariners rookie Julio Rodríguez with two out and nobody on in the eighth.

Martinez had Finnegan warming in the bullpen but opted to stick with Edwards, perhaps because he tends to keep the ball down in the zone and gives up fewer homers than Finnegan. But when Edwards hung a 1-0 curveball at the letters, Rodríguez made him pay for it with a game-tying homer to left-center that etched his place in the 20-20 Club as a rookie.

"Finnegan was never going to come in, unless Edwards got into big trouble," Martinez said. "I like Edwards right there. He just hung him a curveball. But he was throwing the ball well, as well."

If anyone was hoping the Nationals would finally end their streak of consecutive starts without a win, the ingredients appeared to be in place this afternoon, with Aníbal Sánchez putting up zeros and taking the mound for the bottom of the fifth with his team leading 1-0. But then came a sequence that underscored why any streak involving pitcher wins isn’t always so reliable.

With one out and a runner on third, Martinez walked to the mound to speak to Sánchez. The starter’s pitch count was a modest 81, and he hadn’t surrendered a run or labored all that much all day. But with an off-day coming up after this, Martinez knew he had his entire bullpen at his disposal, so he decided to go to one of his big arms right there (Harvey) to try to prevent the run from scoring.

"I liked the matchup with the hard stuff on those guys," Martinez said. "Aníbal, he's done well, but he gets to about that 80-pitch mark, I think that's good. We had a fresh bullpen. Harvey was fresh. I liked the matchup right there, and Harvey did well."

Sure enough, Harvey burst out of the gates throwing gas, and when he struck out Cal Raleigh and Dylan Moore in succession (the latter on a 100-mph fastball), the Nats still had their 1-0 lead intact, even though Sánchez could no longer qualify for the win. So it was the Nationals’ streak of winless starts reached 41, long since surpassing the longest such streak in modern baseball history.

Which isn’t at all a reflection of a poor showing by Sánchez today. Quite the contrary, he was highly effective, allowing just two hits, two walks and a hit batter and never letting anybody cross the plate. Over his last two starts, the 38-year-old right-hander has now totaled 9 1/3 innings allowing just one run on three hits, with four walks and six strikeouts on 160 pitches (91 strikes).

"Lately, I feel really good, especially when I mix my pitches," Sánchez said. "And I think me and (catcher Keibert Ruiz), we're on a really good page for the games. The way we prepare for the whole game, it's been better than the early ones."

The game was nip-and-tuck because the Nationals could not do more than push across one run against Mariners starter George Kirby, whose efficiency was topped only by his remarkable command. Kirby began his outing by throwing 24 consecutive strikes, that streak finally coming to an end when Joey Meneses took a close pitch off the plate for ball one with one out in the third.

Not that the Nats weren’t getting hits off Kirby. They actually had five of them already at that point, all singles. Only one resulted in a run, though: Nelson Cruz’s RBI single to center in the top of the first, accounting for that 1-0 lead.

There were ample opportunities to extend the lead, but the Nationals kept falling back into a season-long habit of failing to string together hits and failing to put together quality at-bats with runners in scoring position.

After back-to-back singles to open the fifth, they saw Victor Robles sacrifice bunt his teammates to second and third, then César Hernández ground out to a drawn-in third baseman and Meneses ground out to end the inning. Then with runners again on second and third and one out in the sixth, CJ Abrams struck out and Lane Thomas grounded out, leaving the Nats 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position and leaving their pitching staff with little margin for error.

By day's end, that pitching staff had limited Seattle to one run. And thanks to one big blast from an unlikely source, the Nationals left town with a win.

"Our pitching's been great, and we're battling," Martinez said. "We're playing defense a lot better. We're battling every day. They play hard for 27 outs. For me, I love the grind that they're going through."

Cavalli joining Nats just as rotation begins to im...
Cavalli to make MLB debut Friday night in D.C.

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