When he was sent down Friday, hitless in seven at-bats, Yadiel Hernández couldn’t help but wonder if he had just blown his first and only chance in the big leagues. His first call-up didn’t come until he was nearly 33. Would he even get a second one?
“A lot of bad things ran through my head in that moment,” the rookie outfielder said tonight, Octavio Martinez interpreting for him in a Zoom session with reporters. “Frustrated. And I felt like moreso I kept reflecting and telling myself: The season’s about to end. I’m 0-for-7 hitting. I don’t even have a hit in the big leagues. I kept thinking about the fact the season’s about to end, so there’s a possibility I don’t get another opportunity. And I don’t even have a base hit to show for it.”
Hernández tried to remember what Davey Martinez had just told him, though. Upon informing him of his demotion after a hitless first week in the majors, the Nationals manager attempted to get him a vote of confidence.
“I know you can hit,” Martinez told Hernández that day. “I know you can swing the bat. I know you can play. Don’t worry about it. You’re going to get another opportunity, I’m sure. Just hang in there. You never know what happens, even in the next few days. Just stay ready.”
Hernández stayed ready. Three days later, he was called back up. And tonight, the 32-year-old rookie outfielder hit his first career homer - a two-run, walk-off homer to beat the Phillies 8-7 in extra innings and keep the Nationals’ impossibly slim postseason hopes alive for another day.
“He came into my office after the game, and he thanked me for sticking with him,” Martinez said. “And I told him: ‘I’m not the person that gives up on anybody. I know what you can do. Just go out there, have fun. Awesome home run. Let’s do it again tomorrow.’ “
The Nationals will need to do it again tomorrow if they want to stay mathematically alive. They’re 23-32, in 13th place out of 15 teams in the National League. But they’re 4 1/2 games back in the race for the eighth and final postseason berth with five games to play, and so they are not yet officially eliminated.
In order to stay in the fight, the Nats needed to sweep today’s doubleheader against the Phillies. Just one loss would essentially eliminate them, even though Major League Baseball insisted the Cardinals also would need to win tonight to make it officially official.
The Nats won the opener, getting a surprising, seven-inning complete game from Austin Voth. They were in position to win the nightcap, up three runs in the fifth of seven scheduled innings. Then they gave those three runs back and forced the game into an eighth inning. At which point they gave up the go-ahead run on a throwing error.
The road club has tended to play for a big inning in this year’s newfangled extra-inning rules, but the Phillies decided to try to just bring home the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth, asking Roman Quinn to bunt automatic runner Phil Gosselin over to third. Except Brock Holt airmailed his throw into the stands, allowing Gosselin to score and Quinn to advance to second. They scored their one run to take the lead.
“The errors, we’ve got to clean up,” said Martinez, whose team ranks last in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved. “We’ve got to clean it up. Like I’ve said before, you can’t give teams extra outs. We’ve got to play better baseball.”
Though the error gave the Phillies the lead, Daniel Hudson did go on to escape a bases loaded jam without suffering any more damage than the one unearned run. That proved important, because it set the stage for Hernández to blast Brandon Workman’s 2-1 cutter deep to right in the bottom of the inning, scoring himself and automatic runner Luis García to win the game in stunning fashion.
“I was paying attention to the at-bat beforehand, with (Eric) Thames hitting,” Hernández said. “And I noticed it seemed like he was throwing a cutter. So when I was hitting, I was kind of expecting that a little bit. He threw a four-seam fastball, and then he cut one on me, threw another straight fastball. So in my head, I was thinking: He’s probably going to throw the cutter here. And I sat on it, and I hit the cutter.”
Hernández, a Cuban refugee who signed with the Nationals in 2016 and then spent four seasons in the minors before finally getting his shot, is the oldest player to ever hit his first big league homer in walk-off fashion, according to STATS.
“This is a dream come true for him,” said Paolo Espino, the 33-year-old right-hander who spent last season with Hernández at Triple-A Fresno and tonight made only his 13th career big league appearance.
Having exhausted all of the other options off the 40-man roster and not wanting promote top pitching prospects Jackson Rutledge or Cade Cavalli before they’re ready, the Nationals were left to summon Espino from their alternate training site in Fredericksburg to start this game. Such is life when you need your eighth starting pitcher in five days.
Espino, had big league experience, but not much of it, all coming in 2017 with the Brewers and Rangers, and only two of those starts. But the veteran right-hander has more than enough professional experience, having spent 13 seasons in the minors, parts of 10 of those at Triple-A. Suffice it to say, he wasn’t going to be nervous taking the mound this evening.
And he certainly didn’t look like he was. Though he gave up three runs in four innings, Espino did what the Nationals needed him to do. He gave them a chance to win.
“After ‘17, I got sent down and I’ve been fighting again,” he said. “It’s definitely tough. It’s been such a long journey. But I’m happy. I don’t regret anything. I’ve been blessed to be staying around, fighting. I have a lot of people behind me supporting me. And I’m so happy that all the teams I’ve been around, and the Nationals especially, for the opportunity they have given me.”
Like his counterpart, Phillies manager Joe Girardi had a full bullpen at his disposal for the nightcap, and he took advantage of that, pulling starter David Hale after one scoreless inning to ignite a parade of relievers emerging from the gate in left field.
It took a few innings, but the Nationals finally made the most of it in the third. David Phelps entered with one out and nobody on and promptly gave up three straight hits to Michael A. Taylor, Andrew Stevenson and Trea Turner.
Girardi made the walk back to the mound and called for lefty J.J. Romero to face Juan Soto, a move that worked splendidly. For the Nationals. Soto jumped on Romero’s first pitch and drove it over the left field fence for his long-awaited first homer of September, this one of the three-run variety, to give the Nats the lead.
Romero was still on the mound in the bottom of the fourth when Thames walked and Hernández send a double down the left field line for his first career RBI. And when Stevenson - who had done just about everything else in the last week - tripled into the right field corner to drive home another run, the Nationals led 6-3.
The Phillies certainly didn’t look like a playoff team, nor have they at any point since this series began. But they weren’t entirely done. They scored twice in the fifth, putting two men on against Kyle McGowin and then bringing them both home on Didi Gregorius’ first-pitch double off the just-installed Wander Suero.
Then, after Suero was allowed to open the sixth and loaded the bases with two outs, Kyle Finnegan gave up an infield single to J.T. Realmuto, with Turner’s off-balance throw from behind second base just barely pulling Thames’ foot off the bag to allow the tying run to score.
This game wasn’t over just yet. And the Nationals’ fate in 2020 wasn’t sealed just yet, either.
It just took an unlikely hero to save the day at the end of a long day and night of baseball. One who convinced himself he hadn’t squandered his one and only opportunity last week.
“Until I laid down that night in my bed, I kept telling myself: You know what? There is time,” Hernández said. “It’s not a lot, but there is time this season. We’ve got to stay positive. Hopefully I get another opportunity. There’s a few more games left.”
There were a few more games left for Hernandez to make his mark. And, improbably, there are still meaningful games left for the Nationals to play.