The situation - runner on second, nobody out, late in a close game - felt eerily familiar. What happened next felt completely foreign for a Nationals club that has spent weeks trying everything in its power to manufacture some late runs and tonight broke through with an eighth-inning rally that provided as cathartic a moment as these guys have experienced in some time.
Knotted in a low-scoring tie game with the Yankees entering the eighth, the Nationals didn’t just plate the go-ahead run. They didn’t just add an insurance run on top of that. They racked up six runs in total before making their second out of the inning, and remarkably turned that nip-and-tuck interleague contest into an 11-4 laugher at Yankee Stadium.
With a potent combination of contact, fundamental execution, one big blast from Josh Harrison and a defensive meltdown by the Bronx Bombers, the Nats produced perhaps their best offensive inning of the season, given the circumstances.
“I spoke on it briefly yesterday: We got presented with more opportunities to drive guys in today, and we got it done,” Harrison said over Zoom postgame, referring to his comments Thursday after his team went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position in the final three innings of a 3-2 loss to the Braves. “It was exciting to have one of these games, one of those innings as well. It was a full team effort.”
Tied 3-3 when the eighth began, the Nationals got things started when Yadiel Hernandez roped a single to right off Jonathan Loaisiga to snap a 1-for-14 slump, then took second when Aaron Judge bobbled the ball. Now it was time to manufacture a run and try to avoid the agony they experienced Thursday and several nights before that.
They did way more than that. Victor Robles put down a perfect bunt to third and wound up safe himself when DJ LeMahieu threw wide to first. Trea Turner then singled up the middle to drive in the go-ahead run and perhaps let the dugout breathe again.
“We’re just trying to move the guy over there,” manager Davey Martinez said. “Robles did a great job getting the bunt down. And then after that, we talk a lot about just moving the baseball, and today was a great example of what we can do when we just put the bat on the ball and think about the small things and don’t try to do too much. Good things happen.”
The small things gave the Nationals the lead, but one big thing extended it into comfortable territory. With the third baseman drawn in, perhaps looking for another bunt, Harrison delivered the big blow: a three-run homer to left that left the crowd of 10,010 silent as the .325-hitting second baseman circled the bags with glee.
“I know the opportunity when presented to you that way - first and second - (a bunt) is always something you’ve got to look for,” he said. “But I also knew that we were up one, and I’m in a really good spot. And when you’re in a really good spot, they’re like: Forget bunting, hit a double! And I end up hitting a home run.”
Add an RBI single by Kyle Schwarber and a chopper that shortstop Gleyber Torres missed (the Yankees’ third error of the inning) and the Nats had themselves a six-run explosion and a comfortable lead.
And then, just for good measure, Juan Soto tattooed a 424-foot homer to left-center in the top of the ninth, his second hit in five at-bats on his first night back in the starting lineup since he injured his left shoulder on May 19.
“We missed having Soto in that lineup, and strengthening that lineup all the way through,” Martinez said. “Him in that lineup makes a big difference. Hopefully this is the beginning of something good here for a stretch, and we’ll take off.”
It was a staggering turn of events to cap off a star-studded series opener that had some fireworks early. Four of the game’s first 15 batters who stepped to the plate homered, two for each team, three of them no-doubters.
The first longball wasn’t long at all. LeMahieu lofted Patrick Corbin’s second pitch of the evening to right field. Off the bat, it looked like a routine fly ball. It traveled only 343 feet, at a high launch angle of 38 degrees. It had an expected batting average of .170. And at Yankee Stadium, it was a home run.
“It’s tough here, the short porch in right,” Corbin said. “But I mean, that’s what he’s best at. I got to see him a lot when he was with the Rockies. He goes the other way, he got them up in the air a little bit.”
Trailing 1-0 early, the Nationals once again found themselves playing from behind. This time, though, they didn’t wait until the late innings to make a charge. They were all over Jameson Taillon in the top of the second, starting with Josh Bell.
For all his early season struggles, Bell has been making hard contact with more frequency. And this time, he connected as well as he’s connected with any baseball since spring training. A 423-foot blast to center field reached Monument Park and got the Nats on the board.
Three batters later, Yan Gomes joined the party. With a runner on first, the veteran catcher launched a fastball 384 feet to left for his fourth homer of the young season and a 3-1 Nationals lead.
Not to be outdone, Gary Sánchez delivered the Yankees’ first legitimate home run of the night, a 420-foot blast into the left field bleachers in the bottom of the second. And so it was that the first four hits of this ballgame all cleared the fence.
Both starters mercifully settled down after the wild opening to the proceedings. Corbin did give up some hard contact but didn’t pay for it, thanks to some well-placed hits and some fine defense behind him. And perhaps most importantly in the bigger picture, the lefty saw his velocity tick up to levels not seen in a while. His fastball averaged 91.8 mph and topped out at 93.9 mph.
There would be another Yankee Stadium Special from his longtime nemesis LeMahieu, who got a little more on his 348-foot homer to right in the sixth. But that was the only baserunner Corbin permitted after the third inning. He departed having thrown 81 pitches over six frames, and though he received no decision, it was fair to ask if this was his most impressive start of a seesaw 2021 to date.
“I felt my fastball was good today,” he said. “I think that’s just going to continue to improve. And I think the slider is going to get better and better as it goes here and it starts warming up. I feel good. I’m in a good position here. I just want to keep this going.”
Truth be told, though, Corbin’s night felt like a footnote in the end. He can thank the Nationals’ opportunistic lineup for making that so.
“It’s nice to see some results,” Harrison said. “Guys have been working our butts off, battling, doing what we’re supposed to. It’s a tough game. You’ve got to be tough mentally and know that, just ‘cause you didn’t get it done the day before, you’ll be presented with more opportunities. And that’s a testament of all the guys in that dugout. Keep plugging away every day.”