Bullpen closes out Marlins to extend Nats’ wild card lead

MIAMI - It’s crunch time in the National League wild card race, and if the Nationals have any intention of extending their season beyond 162 games, they’re going to have to win some close games over the next 10 days and do whatever’s necessary to try to win those games.

Tonight, that meant a six-out save attempt for Daniel Hudson, the second time the veteran reliever has been asked to do that this week. And for the second time this week, Hudson pulled it off, in the process moving his team one step closer to a postseason berth.

“They’re all pretty much must-win,” Hudson said. “They have been for a while. ... It’s just kind of next man up. We’ve got to go get these Ws and get into the playoffs.”

He did his part tonight. With two scoreless innings against a pesky Marlins club that certainly didn’t roll over despite suffering its 100th loss of the season, Hudson finished off a tense 6-4 victory for the Nationals, a nice “Welcome Back” present for manager Davey Martinez in his return to the dugout.

“I love being back,” said Martinez, who was cleared to work four days after undergoing a cardiac catheterization procedure in Washington. “Much better being in the dugout, I can tell you that. It was a lot of fun.”

The Nationals didn’t exactly ease their skipper back into the fray with a simple ballgame. When Aníbal Sánchez couldn’t record an out in the sixth inning, Martinez had no choice but to ask his beleaguered bullpen to procure 12 outs to win this game.

Rodney-Fires-at-MIA-Gray-Sidebar.jpgThe relief corps complied, despite some harrowing moments. Wander Suero let both of the runners he inherited from Sánchez score in the sixth, only to be bailed out by Tanner Rainey. Fernando Rodney looked sharp during a 1-2-3 seventh. Hudson then opened the eighth, pitched out of a self-made jam, then retook the mound for the ninth trying to protect a two-run lead.

With Sean Doolittle warming in the ‘pen in case things turned hairy, Hudson induced a game-ending, 6-4-3 double play out of Miguel Rojas to bring his teammates out of the dugout in celebration.

“I don’t get a ton of ground balls anyway,” Hudson said. “At that point, just try to get some weak contact, and hopefully they hit it at them. I didn’t have my best stuff tonight, obviously couldn’t get a whole lot by them. They’re a pretty aggressive team, but they also make a lot of contact. I was just trying to make a good pitch, and luckily he hit the ball at Trea and we got out of it with the win.”

The victory, coupled with the Cubs’ second straight loss to the Cardinals at Wrigley Field, allowed the Nationals to open up a three-game lead over Chicago for a spot in the National League wild card game. The Nats’ magic number to clinch that berth is now seven, though they still figure to end the night with only a one-game lead over the Brewers for the right to host the Oct. 1 winner-take-all game.

The scene at Marlins Park - an announced crowd of 12,775, a drumline that echoed throughout the cavernous dome - didn’t exactly scream pennant race, but the Nationals couldn’t do anything about that. They needed this game in the worst way, and so they were going to need to find a way to create their own late-September vibe.

It took a few innings to figure out Robert Dugger (making his sixth career start) but once they did the Nationals delivered a couple of big hits off the Marlins rookie right-hander. Trea Turner got things started with a solo blast in the top of the third, the ball landing in the area beyond the left-center field fence that used to house the oft-mocked Home Run Sculpture.

Turner’s homer was the Nationals’ 216th of the season and thus a new franchise record. Not that the Nats are alone in pulling off that feat. They are the 11th major league franchise already to set a home run record this season, with nine days still to go on the schedule.

Though they’ve hit more than their share of homers, the Nationals also feel like they’re still built to score runs in all manner of ways.

“I think we take a lot of pride in that,” Turner said. “Just being able to play baseball. I feel like we have a lot of baseball players on this team, guys that make big pitches, guys that can bunt, drive in a run when needed. And then we can also do the sexy stuff and hit homers.”

Like the big one Asdrúbal Cabrera hit one inning later. The veteran second baseman launched a three-run homer to right, giving him 33 RBIs in only 30 games since joining the team. In those six weeks, Cabrera now is batting a robust .409 (18-for-44) with a 1.260 OPS with runners in scoring position, firmly securing his now daily spot in the middle of the Nats lineup.

“Unbelievable,” Turner said. “I don’t know the stats, but I’m pretty sure the RBIs are off the charts. It just seems like every time there’s a clutch at-bat that we need, he comes through.”

The runs were nice, but Sánchez didn’t exactly take them with a full level of appreciation. The veteran righty let the Marlins score in the bottom half of each of the three innings after his teammates scored.

Sánchez wasn’t especially sharp. He balked a runner to third in the bottom of the third, ultimately putting him in position to score. He gave up a solo homer to Starlin Castro in the fourth, then had to escape a self-made jam later that inning.

The last straw came in the bottom of the sixth, a short while after the Nationals extended the lead to 5-2 on Victor Robles’ two-out RBI single. Needing to post a zero to end his night on a high note and get the ball to the back end of the bullpen, Sánchez instead issued a leadoff walk and then gave up a double. Martinez thus made his first walk to the mound in six days and summoned Suero from his bullpen to try to clean up Sánchez’s mess.

“It was tough,” Sánchez said. “Today, my command wasn’t the same as the last two outings. I don’t know how to explain everything for today, but in the end I tried to fight with the team and get a win for the team.”

Suero not only didn’t clean up Sánchez’s mess, he created another of his own. The right-hander let both inherited runners score, one via an errant pickoff throw. He recorded two outs but left two more runners on base for Rainey, who to his credit struck out pinch-hitter Harold Ramirez on three nasty pitches to get out of the sixth.

The Nationals would tack on another important insurance run in the seventh when Turner hit his second homer of the night, a no-doubter down the left field line. Now it was up to the bullpen to try to close out yet another close game in a season that will be defined by that group’s ability to close out close games over the next 10 days.

“There’s no time for mistakes,” Sánchez said. “There’s no time for taking any game for granted. We need to play harder than normal. People always say in baseball: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. We need to finish really, really strong.”

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