Nats rally to close out torrid first half stretch in style (updated)

If there’s anyone out there who somehow missed the entire first half of the season and is wondering how things went for the Nationals, just plop them down in front of a TV and have them watch a replay of this afternoon’s contest.

This was the Nats’ first half, condensed down to 2 hours, 37 minutes. The starter absolutely dominated for seven innings. The lineup hit a couple of home runs but missed opportunities to add on. The bullpen couldn’t get through the eighth inning without blowing the lead. But a couple of key batters came right back with a pair of clutch hits to re-take the lead and allow the closer a chance to finish off a victory.

This 5-2 victory over the Royals had it all, and it capped off one of the most impressive in-season turnarounds in recent baseball history.

“I might be a little biased, because they kind of got me off the hook there: I think that was our best win of the year,” said closer Sean Doolittle, who was charged with a blown save but then was credited with the win. “That’s a situation where the last day before the All-Star break, guys could be already be looking forward to the break. Guys put together the best at-bats of the day there in the bottom of the eighth inning and gave me three runs to work with. I can’t tell you how much I love being a part of this team. The way that we’ve battled over the last (six) weeks - really coming together, picking each other up, grinding it out - it’s been fun.”

How could this not be fun? The Nationals, after opening the season 19-31, closed out the first half on a 28-11 run. In doing so, they matched the best 39-game stretch in club history, something only the 2005, 2013 and 2014 teams had previously achieved.

They’ll head into the All-Star break no worse than six games back in the National League East and holding the NL’s top wild card position, no insignificant feat for a team that had the league’s second-worst record on May 23.

“I love how we overcame a lot of things the first month and a half, and how we finished,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “Things had to turn, and we made it happen. We finished into the break really well.”

Just like the first half as a whole, this win did not come easily to the Nationals. Patrick Corbin churned out seven innings of scoreless ball to continue the rotation’s dominant run. Dozier and Victor Robles each launched solo homers to provide a 2-0 cushion.

But then those old eighth inning bullpen woes came back to haunt them again. Fernando Rodney allowed his first run in six appearances since joining the team, albeit on a broken-bat bloop single. Doolittle, asked to record a four-out save, served up a game-tying double to Alex Gordon on his very first pitch.

“You know what? One hundred out of 100 times Doolittle comes in to face Gordon,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Good player, good hitter. But we come back, score in the bottom of the eighth.”

Yes indeed, the Nationals stormed back to retake the lead in the bottom of the inning. Adam Eaton started things off with a single to center. Anthony Rendon, who looked beaten down most of the afternoon, followed with a double to the gap in left-center, and Eaton (waved around third by Bob Henley) beat the throw to the plate to score the go-ahead run.

Scherzer-Oops-8th-Inning-sidebar.jpgOr was it the winning run? Max Scherzer appeared to think so, because the ace right-hander burst out of the dugout to celebrate, only to realize he was the only guy out there besides Eaton. Scherzer retreated down the steps to a dugout dying of laughter.

“Come on, Max,” Dozier said, shaking his head. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen it.”

When Scherzer returned to the clubhouse at the end of the game, he was greeted by a replay of the moment on continuous loop on every TV, courtesy of his manager.

“I was trying to stay locked in,” Doolittle said. “But I gotta go back out, and Max is out there on the field. So I don’t know. That was awesome.”

The Nats weren’t done. After Juan Soto reached on an error, Howie Kendrick stepped up to pinch-hit for Matt Adams and did what he’s done all season: Deliver a big-time hit in a big spot. Kendrick laced another double down the left field line, this one scoring both Rendon and Soto and giving the Nationals a three-run lead.

That was plenty for Doolittle, who returned to pitch the ninth, and despite blowing the save wound up vulturing the win.

“When you’re pitching well, and you’re playing good defense and we can put some runs on the board, it seems like when we’ve gotten down we’ve been able to come back,” Kendrick said. “A lot of late-inning runs for us as a team. That’s really good.”

With flights to hometowns across the hemisphere booked for later this evening, players were perhaps a bit extra-motivated to get through today’s game. Hitters were perhaps a bit more aggressive than they might normally be on any other Sunday.

But that shouldn’t detract from Corbin’s performance, which was electric from the get-go. After drawing the number 45 in the dirt behind the rubber for the second time this week to honor his late friend Tyler Skaggs, Corbin got down to business and struck out the side in the top of the first. He opened the second with another strikeout, and though Jorge Soler followed with a double, Corbin bounced right back with another strikeout, his fifth in a span of six batters.

The Royals did drive up Corbin’s pitch count a bit, especially in the fourth, when they threatened to score via three singles. On the last of those, however, Robles fired a laser from shallow center field to the plate, where Yan Gomes applied the tag on Alex Gordon for a big out.

Corbin walked off the mound at the end of the fourth with his pitch count at 71, and that didn’t bode well for a long afternoon for the lefty. But he really turned things up a notch after that and managed to retire the last nine batters he faced on only 33 pitches.

Thus did Corbin complete the latest in a string of dominant performances by the Nationals rotation. Over the last 12 games, their starters combined to post a 1.94 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 99 strikeouts and only 13 walks across 79 innings.

“It’s fun when you got guys that go out there every day and try to pitch as deep as they can, give everything they got,” Corbin said. “You feel you don’t want to let anybody down, so you just go out there, do your job and try to compete. With this offense and the defense behind us, we’re going to win a lot of games if we just continue to do that.”

The Nationals have needed this performance from their rotation, because their lineup (while delivering a few big home runs at times) has not exactly been piling up runs of late.

That was the case again today. Dozier’s solo homer in the second gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead - and extended their franchise-record streak of games with a home run to 21 - but that had to stand up as the game’s lone run for six full innings.

It wasn’t until after Corbin was finished that Robles delivered a big insurance run with his own solo blast off a Jakob Junis curveball. Robles’ 13th homer of the season made it 2-0 and provided a little bit of extra cushion for the bullpen.

Turns out the Nats relief corps needed more than two runs. But it also turns out the Nats lineup was more than ready to pick them up and pull off one more impressive win to complete a more-than-impressive comeback over the last six weeks.

“We don’t quit,” Martinez said. “We don’t quit. Adversity builds character.”

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