Nats take early lead, ride ‘pen to much-needed win (updated)

ST. LOUIS - “Late and close” has not been the Nationals’ forte in recent weeks. When they’ve won, they’ve won by a sizeable margin. When they’ve been in a tight battle late, they’ve tended to lose.

Evidence of that? They entered tonight’s game against the Cardinals having used a reliever in a ninth-inning save situation only once in a calendar month. The situation simply hadn’t come up.

Chip Hale has been prepared for it to happen. And given how little current closer Daniel Hudson has been used of late, the Nationals’ fill-in manager was prepared to go to Hudson tonight in almost any situation, even if it wasn’t the ninth inning yet.

Sure enough, the opportunity presented itself. With the Nats up three runs in the bottom of the eighth, Hale summoned Hudson for what was set up to be a six-out save opportunity. And the veteran reliever delivered the performance his team so desperately needed.

Behind a gutsy start from Patrick Corbin, some late clutch hits by Victor Robles and Yan Gomes, and shutdown relief from Fernando Rodney and Hudson, the Nationals beat the Cardinals 6-2 and held their tenuous position atop the National League wild card standings for at least another 24 hours.

Yet another win by the Brewers (their 11th in 12 games) and a close game between the Cubs and Reds put added pressure on the Nats to pull out a victory tonight. They pulled it out, winning for only the fifth time in their last 13 games, but maintain a 1 1/2-game lead over Milwaukee and Chicago in the race to decide the wild card matchup.

Kendrick-Shark-Gesture-Gray-Sidebar.jpg“It’s that time of year,” Hudson said. “We’ve got to ride hot hands and just try to get wins any way we can. Whether that’s me throwing the eighth and ninth, or Rodney or (Sean Doolittle) or whoever. It’s just next man up. Try to ride the hot hands and get these W’s, cause we really need them right now with this wild card race being so tight.”

With Davey Martinez still recovering from chest pain, Hale was at the managerial helm for the second straight night. He saw his team open up a lead behind more Howie Kendrick offensive heroics. Then he went with two trusted veteran relievers in Rodney and Hudson to finish it off.

“Pretty much every inning, we were thinking about the next one, and we just kept ... the word of the night was ‘reconvene,’ ” Hale said. “(Pitching coach Paul Menhart) said: ‘We’ll reconvene when the inning ends.’”

Rodney actually pitched in the tighter spot: up 3-2 in the seventh against the heart of the St. Louis lineup. The 42-year-old calmly retired the side, striking out Paul Goldschmidt on a 95 mph fastball to erase the bad memories of Saturday’s meltdown against the Braves that included the pitch that broke several bones in Charlie Culberson’s face.

“A veteran guy, you’d expect nothing less,” Hale said. “He felt awful about that last one, but the next day he’s out with the pitchers stretching, having a good time like usual, and realizing it’s the game of baseball and things like that are going to happen, unfortunately. You’re not surprised when guys like that bounce back. They’ve been doing this a lot.”

Tack-on runs allowed Hudson to enter with a three-run lead in the eighth. He got through that on only 11 pitches, so he returned for the ninth, at which point the lead had been stretched to four. He cruised through that frame as well, retiring the side and ending his night having thrown a total of 26 pitches (21 strikes).

“I kind of figured it was going to be two innings when they told me to start the eighth,” the veteran right-hander said. “I had a feeling it might be a 1-plus night.”

With their recovering skipper watching from his home in Washington, the Nationals did something he loves to see. They jumped out to an early lead. Kendrick led off the top of the second with a drive that caromed off the center field wall and then put his 36-year-old legs to the test and ran 270 feet for his first triple since 2017.

“That right there is probably the only way I’m going to triple,” Kendrick said with a laugh.

Asdrúbal Cabrera followed with a fly ball to left, plenty deep to bring his teammate home and give the visitors a 1-0 lead and Martinez reason to smile back home.

Kendrick would bring more smiles to the Nationals dugout in the top of the fourth, when he launched another ball to straightaway center field, this time clearing the fence for his 16th homer of the season. He’s now batting .341 with a .970 OPS. And as the magnitude of the situation grows, he understands it may be time for him to push his body to play more than he has all season.

“Oh, I’m going to play as much as I can, you know what I mean?” he said. “It’s about winning. And when it comes down to it, if Davey asks me to, I’m going to go out there. I feel like I owe it to my teammates to go out there and try to do it.”

By the time Kendrick homered, the Cardinals had scored their first run of the night off Corbin as a direct result of a defensive miscue. The left-hander had an A-plus slider working from the get-go, leading to 11 strikeouts and 17 swing-and-misses on that pitch alone. But he also worked from behind much of the night, issued four walks and got himself in a few jams.

Corbin thought he had pitched his way out of one in the bottom of the third, when with the bases loaded he struck out Marcell Ozuna and then got Paul DeJong to a ground a 3-0 pitch to short. But Trea Turner booted the routine play and an unearned run crossed the plate.

“Patrick Corbin had the bases loaded there; could’ve got out of it with nothing,” Hale said. “But it was a fantastic job of pitching, and still stayed strong and gave up the one run.”

The Cardinals’ second run would be unearned as well, also as Corbin was trying to pitch his way out of a jam. With one out and runners on the corners in the sixth, he got the strike-‘em-out portion of the double play. But Gomes couldn’t provide the throw-‘em-out portion, the ball scooting past Cabrera at second base and allowing the runner to score from third.

Corbin would get out of that jam with no more damage suffered. He finished his night having thrown 110 pitches in six innings, zero earned runs having crossed the plate. And the lefty departed in line for the win, thanks to Robles’ two-out RBI single to center in the top of the sixth.

“I felt good,” Corbin said. “I wish I got out of that last inning. If I was around 100 (pitches), I would have liked to have gone back out. They made me work a little bit there, and they got the pitch count up.”

Two innings later, Robles would deliver another key RBI single for a tack-on run. Now the game was in the hands of the Nationals bullpen, and a fill-in manager who had to figure out how best to deploy his best available options in a game his team desperately needed to win.

“There’s no panic,” Hale said. “Once the game’s over last night, it’s a new one today. Same thing tonight: You win, start from zero tomorrow. There’s definitely no panic.”

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