Hours after watching their front office trade away two popular veterans and their owner issue a statement that all but served as a concession speech for the 2018 season, the Nationals took the field tonight to face a Phillies team that is very much in a pennant race for the first time in seven years, then sat through a 1-hour, 42-minute rain delay in the third inning before re-taking the field in front of a crowd with a vibe not felt around here since maybe 2010.
With Daniel Murphy on his way to Chicago, Matt Adams on his way to St. Louis and the Braves and Phillies perhaps on their way to the postseason, what remained of the Nationals could have been excused if they showed up for work a bit less energized than usual.
As has been the case more often than not during this summer of discontent, though, energy wasn’t the Nats’ problem tonight. There were a few other issues, most notably some poor situational hitting and baserunning in the fifth inning, plus some shaky relief in a couple of late frames. But the effort was there, especially during a dramatic sixth-inning rally that ultimately propelled them to a 10-4 victory that felt like it was in direct contrast to the message sent from above earlier in the day.
“That shows the character of these guys,” manager Davey Martinez said. “They haven’t given up all year. I said it before: These guys could’ve folded a long time ago, and they’re not. We’re not. I’m proud of them.”
Many of the contributions tonight came from players who haven’t been here throughout this tumultuous season. Shoot, the two biggest hits came from two guys who would not have even had this opportunity if not for the afternoon trades. Andrew Stevenson and Wilmer Difo launched back-to-back homers in the bottom of the sixth, capping a five-run rally that turned this game around.
Stevenson, who along with Adrian Sanchez was a last-minute promotion from Triple-A to fill the roster spots that suddenly opened, made the six-hour drive from Syracuse to D.C. in a driving rain, arrived during the delay in the bottom of the third, then sent a pinch-hit, two-run shot to left-center in the bottom of the sixth for his first career homer.
“They said get there as soon as you can,” Stevenson recalled. “I know you’re going to be late, but they might need you the second half of the game. Ended up making it. Turned out pretty good.”
Moments after Stevenson provided his heroics, Difo (now the starting second baseman in Murphy’s place) homered as well to bring the Nats back from a three-run deficit.
And when a patchwork bullpen headlined by Justin Miller, Wander Suero and Kelvin Herrera (fresh off the disabled list) closed things out over the final three innings, the Nationals had themselves a win that moved them back to the .500 mark and allowed them to gain a game on the second-place Phillies.
“They have a lot of talent with the young guys,” Herrera said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “They have a lot heart out there. They go out there and do their job. So I still think we can still go out there and perform and do our job.”
Things were proceeding well early on, with Tanner Roark tossing three scoreless innings and even driving in his eighth run of the year to stake the Nationals to an early 1-0 lead. But then the heavens opened and the two clubs were forced to wait around until 9:34 p.m. to resume the bottom of the third.
At that point, only a smattering of the announced crowd of 24,080 remained in the stands. And a good portion of those were cheering as the Phillies scored four runs off Matt Grace in the top of the sixth. For the first time in at least seven years, the contending visitors from up Interstate-95 were embarrassing the sub-.500 home team from the District.
But then something unexpected happened. With every reason to go through the motions and go home after a long and disappointing day, the Nationals instead re-seized the game with an impressive rally capped by two young players who would not have had an opportunity to do it if not for the afternoon’s trades.
The five-run rally began with a bunt single by Juan Soto, who later scored on Matt Wieters’ single to right. To the plate stepped Stevenson, who has made a couple of trips to Washington the last two seasons but never before under circumstances quite like this. And what did the rookie outfielder do? He launched the first home run of his career, a two-run shot to left-center to tie the game.
“To be able to help the team win, that’s the biggest thing,” the 24-year-old said. “Whether it’s coming off the bench or being a glove out there, any way I can help, it’s just great to get the opportunity.”
Seconds after Stevenson, Difo stepped to the plate, likewise in the lineup only because the team needed a starting second baseman. And the No. 9 hitter promptly launched a ball down the right field line to give the Nationals back-to-back homers and a 5-4 lead.
“I don’t think I have to show them anything; they know what I can do,” Difo said, via Martinez. “Just same work ethic, keep working hard, doing my job, keep going out there every day and performing, helping the team win any way I can.”
Bryce Harper’s two-out RBI double off lefty Adam Morgan added one insurance run, Ryan Zimmerman’s solo homer in the seventh added another and then three more runs produced by Anthony Rendon and Wieters in the eighth extended the lead to six.
The bullpen didn’t necessarily close this one out with ease - Koda Glover was pulled after loading the bases with two outs in the eighth - but it got the job done. And so what could have been among the most discouraging days the Nationals have experienced in a long time somehow ended with at least a glimmer of hope.
The front office may have made two moves that suggest a concession of the 2018 season, but the players then made their case to suggest nothing has been conceded just yet.