Winker's much-needed blast rescues Nationals (updated)

For 14 innings across nearly 23 hours, they swung and swung and kept swinging and kept making outs. And then with one mighty swing, Jesse Winker changed the agonizing narrative that had defined the first half of the Nationals’ series against the Diamondbacks and got his team back on track.

Winker’s two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth snapped the Nats out of their scoreless funk. And thanks to a tack-on run provided by Ildemaro Vargas, another effective start by Patrick Corbin and another strong showing by the back end of the bullpen, they emerged with a cathartic 3-1 victory.

"Good teams, that's what they do," manager Davey Martinez said. "They're not going to hit every day. I talk about it all the time: Hitting is hard. And you're going to go through those lapses where it's like that, where you score two or three runs but you've got a chance to win. That's what I love about this team: They don't give up."

It wasn't a perfect day at the yard for the Nationals, who had to scratch shortstop CJ Abrams from the lineup shortly before first pitch with a left wrist issue. Martinez said Abrams, who isn't sure how he hurt himself, is getting an MRI to determine the extent of the injury.

Shut out on four hits and no walks Tuesday night even with a healthy leadoff man, the Nationals totaled just two hits and one walk through five innings this afternoon against Arizona starter Brandon Pfaadt, whose pitch count remained ridiculously low thanks to another string of first-pitch outs made by an overly aggressive lineup.

But then Lane Thomas drew a two-out, full-count walk in the sixth, and that brought Winker to the plate. Not many members of the Nationals can claim to be swinging well these days, but Winker has been the exception, ranking among the major league leaders in multiple offensive categories over the last month.

So when Winker connected on an 0-1 fastball from Pfaadt and drove it into the red seats in left-center field for the go-ahead homer, it wasn’t so much a surprise as it was a relief for a Nats team that desperately needed its No. 3 hitter to deliver like that.

"I was just happy it got up and got out," Winker said. "The warmer weather, for sure, probably helped out."

The Nationals have preached an aggressive approach to hitting all season, but they took it to a new level in Tuesday night’s series opener, seeing a grand total of 96 pitches during a 5-0 shutout. Would they take a different tact in today’s game? They would not.

Four of the Nats’ first five batters put the first pitch of their plate appearance into play. The results: a double play, an infield single, a foul popout and another double play. When Pfaadt walked off the mound at the end of the fourth inning, the right-hander had thrown all of 35 pitches.

So the Nationals tried patience in the bottom of the fifth. The results of that: Luis García Jr. and Keibert Ruiz each took a fastball for strike one, then a changeup for strike two before ultimately grounding out. As has too often been the case, they’re all swinging at strikes. They’re just not hitting them with any authority.

"(Arizona pitchers) are attacking the strike zone," Martinez said. "You can't get behind, and then all of a sudden you put yourself in a hole. We tried. The swings, we were just missing balls."

As this was all playing out Wednesday, Corbin was just trying to keep his team in the game while getting precious little time to rest between innings. The left-hander was coming off a strong start in Detroit, and he kept it going this afternoon against his former team, cruising through three scoreless innings on 46 pitches.

The top of the fourth got hairy, with 31 pitches required of Corbin. He managed to limit the damage to one run, though, and that one run came via a bases-loaded walk.

"With the bases loaded, to give up just one there was huge," the lefty said. "That could've changed the momentum of the game and maybe put it out of reach. I put myself in that situation. To limit it to one there was huge."

Corbin could also thank his fill-in shortstop for helping prevent anyone else from crossing the plate.

Nasim Nuñez, getting a rare start in place of Abrams, couldn’t quite make a leaping snag of Eugenio Suárez’s line drive with the bases loaded, but he got enough of the ball to knock it down. And when he picked it up, rather than make the easier throw to first or second base, Nuñez opted to throw an off-balance laser to the plate, impressively nabbing Lourdes Gurriel Jr. just in the nick of time. It went down in the scorebook as a simple 6-2 fielder’s choice, but oh what a choice it was to attempt that play.

"I'm thinking: The only kid that can make that play is him," Martinez said of the Nats' seldom-used Rule 5 Draft pick. "He's got a cannon. And to have the game awareness to make that play was awesome."

With his starter’s pitch count high on a hot day with little time to breathe, Martinez pulled Corbin after five innings and 90 pitches. Over his last two starts, he’s lowered his ERA from 6.15 to 5.60.

Is that enough to hold onto his spot in the rotation? Josiah Gray’s performance tonight in a rehab start at Double-A Harrisburg may carry some significant weight as the Nationals finally confront a decision that feels like it’s been looming for ages.

Corbin didn’t get the win today. That honor went to Derek Law, who tossed two perfect innings of relief sandwiched around the Winker homer. Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan then finished things off and ensured their team - in spite of its offensive flaws - has now won nine of its last 11 and has a chance to win another series Thursday afternoon.

"I think we're gritty," Law said. "I've been saying it all year, from the beginning of the year. We play so many close games, and I've been a part of teams like that. ... As long as you can keep it close, then you know you're going to have a chance pitching- and hitting-wise to win a ballgame."

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