Nationals score early, avoid drama late in victory (updated)

MINNEAPOLIS - They got the early offense they’ve been seeking for most of the last week-plus. They got another quality, if a bit briefer than hoped, start from Stephen Strasburg. Now the Nationals needed three clean innings from their bullpen in order to beat a very good Twins club.

That should be a nice, simple formula for success. But as anyone who has followed this team all season, it’s never that nice or simple.

Though they certainly came close to making it simple tonight.

Getting nine outs from four relievers, the Nationals held onto their late lead and emerged with a 6-2 victory at Target Field that was appreciated not merely for the result but for the process that led to it.

“It worked out the way I wanted it to work out,” manager Davey Martinez said.

That it did, in more ways than one. After jumping out to an early lead behind big hits from Ryan Zimmerman, Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick, the Nats rode six strong innings from Strasburg to carry a lead into the late innings. That’s when Martinez pieced things together effectively to finish this one out.

Wander Suero got two outs in the seventh, then handed it over to Sean Doolittle, who faced one tough lefty (Luis Arraez) and retired him in something of a new role for the former closer still working his way back from injury and arm fatigue.

Fernando Rodney was given the eighth, and though the 42-year-old got into a quick jam and brought the tying run to the plate, he calmly retired three straight batters to quash that potential rally and send the game into the ninth.

And then, after Trea Turner added a big insurance home run, Daniel Hudson closed it out in the ninth in a non-save situation, securing only the Nationals’ second win in their last seven games to keep pace with the already victorious Brewers and Mets in the wild card race, with the Cubs still playing in San Diego.

“I think the bullpen knows what’s going on with the situation,” Rodney said. “The type of team we face right now, the other side, they want to win the division. And we’re trying to get into the first wild card or second wild card. At the end of the day, the plan is to try to attack this guy, try to make him swing, try to make a pitch and not stay too much in the zone because they can hit. So that’s the plan that we got tonight in the bullpen.”

It helped that the bullpen was able to enter with a lead, thanks to some long-awaited early offense.

After struggling for more than a week to hit opposing starters - they totaled 10 runs in their previous eight games - the Nationals finally jumped on one tonight. They got two quick runs in the top of the first off Martín Pérez, with Soto and Zimmerman delivering RBI singles, the latter with two outs.

“I think the percentages probably show it’s pretty good for every team to score first,” said Zimmerman, without knowing the Nationals indeed are 55-25 this season when scoring first. “I think with our starting pitching, and the guys that we run out there every five days, if we can put some runs up first, they usually do a pretty good job in those first five or six innings. ... If you give them a cushion, they know how to use it. It’s definitely to our advantage, and we try to do it every night. It just doesn’t work out that well sometimes.”

It worked out tonight. And for good measure, the Nats added on during a three-run top of the third that featured back-to-back two-out hits. Kendrick, professional hitter extraordinaire, drilled an 0-2 pitch to right and over Eddie Rosario’s head for an RBI double. Moments later, Zimmerman connected for a two-run blast to left that extended the Nationals’ lead to 5-0 and extended the veteran first baseman’s nice power run since rejoining the lineup.

Zimmerman, who had a three-hit night, is now batting .304 with three homers and 10 RBIs in seven games since coming off the injured list, a welcome addition to a lineup that has needed someone to step up.

“Huge,” Martinez said. “Huge.”

Strasburg-Throws-Front-Gray-Sidebar.jpgThat’s all the Nationals would get off Pérez, though, and it’s all they’d get for a while. Which put pressure on Strasburg to hold this power-laden Twins lineup in check, no small task.

Strasburg was up to the challenge, but the Twins made him work nonetheless. Despite allowing only two runs on four hits and two walks, he needed 98 pitches simply to complete his first five innings of work.

Jorge Polanco delivered the only substantial blow off Strasburg, a two-run homer to right in the bottom of the third. Others, however, worked the count well, making for some prolonged at-bats and leaving Strasburg needing to find an efficient inning somewhere along the way to give him a chance to make it through six.

Turns out that efficient inning came in the sixth. Strasburg needed only six pitches to retire the side, and that left him at 104 for the evening.

“You can kind of see the finish line there,” he said. “I think it’s easy to go out there and overthrow; tried that before and it doesn’t work. For me, I just try to go out there and slow down a little bit. Make sure I’m focused on each pitch and make sure I’m not rushing through things.”

Strasburg returned to the dugout to receive handshakes and high fives. Then the Nationals handed the rest of the game to their bullpen and held their breath, hoping the runs they scored a few hours ago would hold up.

“We talk about it every day: Come out and try to get that lead early,” Martinez said. “You put the pressure on the other team. And we did that today.”

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