Nationals find new formula to beat Cubs again

CHICAGO - The combination of an explosive lineup and consistently dominant starting pitching has allowed the Nationals to weather the first week of Sean Doolittle’s stint on the injured list without having to put too much weight on the shoulders of their reconfigured bullpen.

Because he’s been getting seven (or more) innings out of his starters, and because his lineup has been averaging 10 runs a game, Davey Martinez hasn’t really needed to worry about who’s going to close out games in Doolittle’s absence.

Martinez knew that day would come, though: “I like the fact that the games are lopsided right now,” he said this morning. “When the games are not lopsided, then we’ll make those decisions.”

Ross-Delivers-Back-Black-PW-Sidebar.jpgA few hours later, the Nationals’ manager finally had to start making those decisions. With his team jumping out to an early lead but Joe Ross departing after 4 1/3 innings, Martinez now had to piece together the rest of this game with the arms available to him. And he pieced it together perfectly.

Wander Suero, Tanner Rainey, Hunter Strickland, Fernando Rodney and Daniel Hudson combined to toss 4 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, leading the Nationals to a 7-2 victory over the Cubs that was tighter than most of their recent wins before turning more comfortable later. No matter the path, it was just as impressive as any of the previous ones.

“It’s definitely special to be a part of that,” Strickland said. “Facing a good team, this is a big series here. To go out there and have everybody do their individual job was huge for us.”

The Nats have now taken two in a row from a Chicago team that entered the weekend with a sparkling 44-19 record at Wrigley Field, and will send Stephen Strasburg to the mound Sunday afternoon with a chance at a three-game sweep.

Not that any of this should come as a huge surprise. The Nationals have now led in the eighth inning or later in 18 consecutive games. (They’ve gone 14-4 in those games.) They’ve also been ahead or tied in the seventh inning or later in 56 of their last 60 games. (They’ve gone 40-20 during that stretch.)

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Martinez said. “They’re playing really, really good. Let’s just keep it going.”

This victory required a bit of a different formula than most of the previous ones.

With Ross laboring in the fifth, Martinez turned to his bullpen early. That group, often beleaguered, delivered big-time. Suero pitched out of the jam he inherited in the fifth, striking out Javier Báez with a wicked 3-2 cutter, then getting Kyle Schwarber to popup.

“In situations like that with runners on, I’m trying to be more selective, trying to make my pitches be a little nastier, if I can say it that way,” Suero said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I don’t want to leave anything over the plate just for them to be able to put it into play.”

Rainey walked two batters in the sixth but was bailed out when Cubs reliever Kyle Ryan (who batted for himself and drew one of those walks) was thrown out trying to reach third on a ball in the dirt.

Strickland and Rodney dominated the seventh and eighth innings, Strickland striking out the heart of the Chicago lineup in order and Rodney recording an easy 1-2-3 bottom of the eighth. Hudson, who appears to be the de factor closer for now until Doolittle returns, then pitched a scoreless ninth with a five-run lead after his teammates tacked on some insurance runs.

“Today was a great day for us,” Suero said.

As they’ve done throughout this road trip, the Nationals jumped on the opposing starter to take an early lead. And they did it with small ball today, scoring five runs in the first three innings without producing anything beyond a single.

Some lackadaisical defense from the Cubs helped - Anthony Rizzo threw to second base with nobody covering, then later dropped a routine throw from third - but the Nats also did a nice job executing, whether in the form of Adam Eaton bunting, Anthony Rendon sending a fly ball to left with a man on third and nobody out or Juan Soto busting down the line to prevent a double play and allow a run to score.

“We talk about this all the time: Scoring first,” Martinez said. “When we can do that, we put a lot of pressure on the other team.”

The Nationals also got some clutch hits from Howie Kendrick (16 for his last 32) and Yan Gomes (5 for his last 7 with two walks) to stake themselves to a 5-0 lead and give Ross some cushion.

Ross, returning to the mound five days after he had to depart abruptly upon taking a 110-mph comebacker off his right shin, was in peak form early on. In full command of his sinker, he induced ground balls out of the first six batters he faced.

But once the Cubs began to get more of a look at him, Ross began to get himself into jams. He gave up a run in the third on a two-out RBI single by Nicholas Castellanos. He then had to pitch his way out of a tense jam in the fourth, striking out Schwaber with a slider, Victor Caratini with a changeup and then Ian Happ with the bases loaded on a 3-2 fastball off the outside corner that nonetheless was called strike three by Vic Carapazza. (Happ would be ejected by Carapazza upon arguing that suspect call.)

“I was really bearing down with runners on, especially in scoring position,” Ross said. “I kind of worked myself out of the jam there in the fourth inning. I just tried to execute the big pitches in the big counts and big situations. It paid off.”

Facing the Cubs lineup the third time through, Ross got into another jam in the fifth. And this time, he couldn’t pitch out of it. An RBI ground-rule double by Jonathan Lucroy brought home Chicago’s second run of the afternoon and brought Martinez out of the dugout to pull his starter after 88 pitches.

It was only the fifth inning, and now Martinez needed to cobble together the rest of this game with his reconfigured bullpen. It took some maneuvering, but it worked.

“We pieced everything together, based on their lineup and our guys available,” Martinez said. “These guys came in and did a great job.”

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