With win over Phillies, Nats have chance to clinch Tuesday

A roller coaster of a baseball season that began in hopeless fashion, then turned remarkably hopeful over the course of the summer before some September hiccups has now left the Nationals on the cusp of a significant achievement.

It will still take three positive results over the span of a long day of baseball, but it can now be said: The Nationals could clinch a postseason berth Tuesday night, with five games to spare.

The Nats put themselves in that position thanks to a 7-2 victory over the Phillies tonight in the opener of a rare, five-game series that has loomed on the schedule since a late June rainout necessitated it. They’ll make up that game Tuesday afternoon, then send Max Scherzer to the mound in the nightcap.

And if they should sweep the day-night twinbill, and if the Cubs should lose to the Pirates as this all plays out, the Nationals would have the opportunity to close out Tuesday night with a champagne celebration in their home clubhouse having clinched a spot in next week’s National League wild card game.

They’re not there yet. There’s still work to be done, with the magic number down to three. But they opened this critical final week of the regular season in strong fashion, overmatching a Phillies club that will now be eliminated from postseason contention if they lose either of Tuesday’s games to their division rivals.

“Let’s just take care of tomorrow,” manager Davey Martinez said, echoing his season-long mantra. “Tomorrow we got a doubleheader. Just win the first game and go from there. It’s been that same message almost the whole year: Let’s go 1-0, you know. That’s how we got to this point. I don’t want them to think too far ahead.”

The Nationals (86-69) took care of business tonight behind six strong innings from Patrick Corbin, a flurry of solo homers and then three innings of lockdown work from their bullpen.

After a harrowing weekend in Miami that saw a pair of leads blown late, the Nationals got a 1-2-3 seventh from Fernando Rodney, a 1-2-3 eighth from Daniel Hudson and then a one-run ninth from Javy Guerra, who got to close out the game instead of Sean Doolittle after his teammates tacked on two insurance runs in the bottom of the eighth.

Eaton-Homers-White-sidebar.jpgThe Nationals jumped out to a 3-0 lead, thanks to one towering solo blast per inning. Adam Eaton got things started with a 444-foot moon shot right over Bryce Harper’s head and into the second deck in right field, his career-high 15th homer of the season.

“I am in the best shape in September I’ve been in my entire career, by far,” said Eaton, who missed significant time the last two seasons after tearing his ACL and injuring his ankle. “Just being able to run, I feel very strong. My body’s in a good position right now, and it goes all to (the Nationals training staff). I can only do what I’m told to do, and they’ve done a great job. This medical staff, I think, is the best in the league. I’ve only had experience with a few, but they’re unbelievable.”

One inning later, Yan Gomes continued his late surge at the plate with a shot over the center field wall. It was Gomes’ fifth homer during a month in which he has caught 15 of the last 16 games while Kurt Suzuki deals with an elbow injury.

“He’s playing really, really well,” Martinez said. “All of a sudden I ask him to catch every day, and he’s been really, really good.”

Trea Turner then delivered the third blast, leading off the bottom of the third with his 17th homer of the year, this one landing in the left field bullpen.

There were several more golden opportunities to put the game out of reach, with the Nationals loading the bases with nobody out in both the third and fifth innings and two of their best clutch hitters (Howie Kendrick and Asdrúbal Cabrera) at the plate. Those two managed to drive in only one run, though, and that came on Cabrera’s routine grounder to first.

Nonetheless, the Nationals had themselves a 5-0 lead, which was more than enough run support for Corbin on this night.

The left-hander was not his sharpest, because his trademark slider was not its sharpest. But he found a way to get the job done in part by turning to a rarely used pitch to put away hitters: a high fastball. Corbin struck out both Harper and Rhys Hoskins with heaters up in the zone, showing off his ability to use power over finesse when needed.

“My fastball felt really good today,” he said. “I thought I was able to locate it. I found some two-seamers that were close, just missing a little bit, but felt really good about it. Kind of kept them off balance.”

Corbin reached the sixth inning with a five-run lead and a reasonable pitch count, offering up thoughts he might be able to get through seven and make Martinez’s bullpen decisions a little easier. But he labored in the sixth, issuing two walks and a double and then watching the Phillies score their lone run off him when Anthony Rendon’s throw on a potential 5-3 double play pulled Kendrick off first base.

Corbin struck out Adam Haseley to end the threat, though, and end his night at 108 pitches. And in doing so, he continued his quietly dominant second-half run. Over his last 18 starts, he’s now 9-2 with a 2.24 ERA and 1.12 WHIP.

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