Nats battle back, then battle back again to win in 11 (updated)

All the Nationals needed to do to win tonight’s game at Tropicana Field was overcome a disastrous first inning from their starter, take an early lead thanks to three home runs, watch their bullpen blow that lead in regulation to force extra innings, score two runs in the top of the 10th with a rare display of situational hitting, watch their closer blow that lead in the bottom of the 10th while his pitch count soared to levels not seen in five years, retake the lead in the top of the 11th with another rare display of clutch hits with runners in scoring position and then hang on for dear life while a reliever with an ERA approaching 10.00 recorded his first career save.

All that just to depart St. Petersburg, Fla., with a 9-7 victory over the Rays that was exhausting to watch, let alone play.

The official game-winning hit was provided by Starlin Castro, whose leadoff double off the left field wall in the top of the 11th scored Jordy Mercer (pinch-running for Josh Bell, the automatic runner placed on second base). It was followed by Josh Harrison’s sacrifice fly to center, which was merely the last of several quality plate appearances for the Nationals during this roller coaster ballgame.

“We battled,” said Castro, who entered the night batting .228 with one extra-base hit in 65 plate appearances with runners in scoring position. “That’s a really good win, to win the game like that against a really good team.”

One inning earlier, they thought they had done what they needed to win the game with a two-run rally that featured an equally impressive display of situational hitting. With runners on second and third (the latter the automatic runner who got to start the inning at second base) and one out, Yan Gomes fell behind in the count 0-2. But he did exactly what you’re supposed to do with the 0-2 slider down and away he got from reliever Andrew Kittridge and poked an RBI single to right to give his team the lead.

Kyle Schwarber then did exactly what you’re supposed to do with one out, a runner on third and a lefty on the mound when he sent the first pitch he saw from Ryan Sherriff to the wall in left field for a sacrifice fly and what looked like a key insurance run.

“Those at-bats were exactly what we’re looking for in those situations,” manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “And it was great. Starlin with a big hit. But Yan Gomes’ was a two-strike hit. The fly ball by Josh Harrison? Huge against that guy.”

And yet Brad Hand, asked to pitch multiple innings for only the fourth time this season, couldn’t protect the two-run lead his teammates had just provided him. Having already thrown 20 pitches to get through the bottom of the ninth, the lefty surrendered a leadoff RBI triple to Randy Arozarena on a drive to the wall in center field that Victor Robles couldn’t quite haul in. Then he surrendered a game-tying RBI single to Joey Wendle on his 27th pitch. And though he never did let the winning run cross the plate, he wound up throwing 44 pitches overall, his largest single-game total in relief since he was a just-converted starter for the Padres in 2016.

“We had to push Hand there,” Martinez said. “We know he hasn’t pitched. He was off for four days. We’ve been wanting to get him out there. I knew we had the top of the lineup coming up (in the 10th). If he could keep us right there, I really thought we’d score some runs, and then he was good to go back out after that. It didn’t work out for him, but he did keep us in the game. And the game was still tied.”

With Hand and Daniel Hudson having already combined to throw 75 pitches over 3 2/3 innings, Martinez then had to entrust the bottom of the 11th to Tanner Rainey, who entered with a 9.92 ERA but looked better during Tuesday’s loss.

Rainey immediately got into trouble, walking Kevin Kiermaier on five pitches, bringing the winning run to the plate. But the erratic right-hander managed to strike out Manuel Margot, get Yandy Díaz to ground out and get major league RBI leader Austin Meadows to strike out, end the game and earn congratulations for his first career save.

“It means the world,” Rainey said of being put into that situation. “When the staff still has faith in you, it means a lot. It gives you that chance to go back out there and continue to build outing after outing.”

The Nationals could’ve won this game in much easier fashion, thanks to their early power display.

Zimmerman-HR-Swing-Gray-TB-Sidebar.jpgUnable to convert the few earlier opportunities they had with runners in scoring position, they nonetheless took a 5-3 lead thanks to three big blasts from two big boppers. Juan Soto’s two-run homer in the first gave them the lead. Ryan Zimmerman’s solo homer in the third retied the game after Patrick Corbin had immediately given back the lead. And then Zimmerman’s two-run homer in the fifth capped a brilliant night for the rejuvenated 36-year-old and gave the Nationals the lead again.

Getting a rare chance to start back-to-back days at first while Bell was serving as the designated hitter in the American League park, Zimmerman made the most of it by doing what he’s been doing for a long time: crushing lefties. He took a fastball up and away from Shane McClanahan deep to right for a solo homer in the third. Two innings later, he turned on a slider down and in from Jeffrey Springs deep to left for a two-run shot.

Those were Zimmerman’s seventh and eighth homers in 108 plate appearances during the season to date, a rate of 7.4 percent that dwarfs his previous career high of 6.3 percent set during his 36-homer, All-Star campaign of 2017.

“I didn’t know what kind of numbers I’d put up (in a reduced role),” he said. “Obviously, there’s still a long way to go, so I still have work to do. But I’ve been happy with the way I’ve started, and hopefully I can continue it. But you don’t get any awards for having a good first two months.”

The Nationals couldn’t have realistically hoped to hand the ball to Corbin under better circumstances, giving the lefty the ball for the bottom of the first with a 2-0 lead provided by Soto’s 423-foot homer to dead center off McClanahan. And then they couldn’t have realistically envisioned a worse response by their starter.

Spraying the ball everywhere but within the strike zone, Corbin issued three straight walks to open the bottom of the first. The last of them came on four pitches, prompted a mound visit from pitching coach Jim Hickey and perhaps had Martinez wondering if he needed to pick up the bullpen phone ASAP.

A subsequent 419-foot drive off the center field wall by Arozarena - who wound up stuck on first base after admiring what he apparently thought would be a grand slam but instead turned into a two-run single - erased the Nats’ 2-0 lead. And a sacrifice fly moments later gave Tampa Bay the lead after one chaotic inning under the roof.

“It’s just staying away from those big innings,” Martinez said. “When he gets in those big moments, I think he needs to slow things down a little bit. I think he tends to want to speed things up. He needs to slow things down and just focus on one pitch and get that one out.”

It was as bad as Corbin has looked at any point during a season that has already seen him look awful on more than one occasion. But what looked like a sure early exit and an even higher ERA somehow morphed into something far more productive.

Corbin never really looked sharp, particularly with his go-to pitch. He got strikes with only 10 of his 30 sliders, the Rays unwilling to bite on the pitch as it broke down and in to right-handed hitters. And there were some loud outs as well. But no more runs.

Corbin walked off the mound following a 1-2-3 bottom of the fifth having posted four straight zeros following the mess of an opening inning, his pitch count at 93. It certainly didn’t qualify as a quality start. But under the circumstances, it was a remarkably successful outcome, if a bit of a footnote at the end of this long night.

“Great job. Obviously a game we needed to win,” Zimmerman said. “I think Patrick did a good job after that rough first inning, grinding it out and getting through some innings for us. That’s a good team, though. They grind out at-bats, too. It’s hard to put them away.

“Good win for us. Good way to end the road trip. And hopefully we can take some momentum home.”

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