As the balls flew off the bats of Kyle Schwarber (twice), Trea Turner and Gerardo Parra, and as Paolo Espino was carving up the Mets for five scoreless innings, the mood inside of Nationals Park was ... well, how exactly to describe this?
Was it ecstasy? Was it delirium? Was it some emotion that has yet to be defined, because nobody in attendance had ever witnessed anything quite like this on a baseball field in a long time?
And then how to describe the vibe as the Nationals bullpen turned a late five-run lead into a one-run nail biter that required a five-out save attempt from the closer?
Was it agony? Was it nauseating? Was it some unprintable word that too many in attendance had uttered too many times during the first half of the 2019 season?
And then how to describe the feeling when Ryan Zimmerman made it all moot with a three-run blast for some much needed insurance and allowed everyone to rejoice again?
There may be no accurate way to explain what was happening on South Capitol Street this evening during the Nationals’ 8-4 victory over the Mets. Suffice it to say, everyone among the 19,150 was treated to the full gamut of emotions by night’s end, from joy to anger to relief as Brad Hand closed out a victory that featured far more twists and turns than seemed necessary.
But, hey, the end result was just fine for the Nats, who kept up their winning ways and again took down the team it’s chasing.
Behind a power barrage that included two more Schwarbombs and five more scoreless innings from Espino, the secret weapon of the pitching staff, the Nationals disposed of the Mets in this make-up of one of the season-opening games postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Over the last 11 days, the Nats have gone 4-1 against New York and as such now trail in the division by a mere three games.
“This team is phenomenal,” Schwarber said in his latest postgame Zoom session with reporters following another home run barrage. “Just the character and the mindset and the day-in and day-out work and attitudes that we all have, it’s been really fun. We always say winning’s fun, and it’s definitely been a good time.”
They are indeed doing it in a manner that has included all kinds of fun, starting with one of the best short-term power displays by one individual baseball has ever seen.
No opposing pitcher can claim to be unprepared to face Schwarber at this point, especially in the first inning. And yet there was Jerad Eickhoff serving up a 439-foot blast to the leadoff man on his second pitch of this game, the ball soaring down the right field line and nearly halfway up the third deck into parts rarely seen here.
“I’m not going up there trying to hit home runs,” Schwarber said, repeating a familiar refrain over the last few weeks. “But whenever you can start the game off there with a run, then add one later, it’s definitely a good feeling.”
The crowd barely had time to celebrate Schwarber’s 14th homer in 17 games before Turner blasted the very next pitch 435 feet to left for a 2-0 lead. Juan Soto almost made it three homers on three pitches but had to settle for a measly double off the wall in right-center that traveled 389 feet.
So that made for an enjoyable first inning at the yard. And things were just getting warmed up.
Parra stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the second and was greeted, of course, by “Baby Shark.” Moments later, once the ball he crushed off Eickhoff clanged off the foul pole, the forever popular outfielder circled the bases to the strains of his walk-up song, the crowd and the dugout chomping away throughout.
“Surprised, because there’s a lot of new faces (on the roster),” Parra said. “But I think everybody did it. Even Zimmerman, too. When you see Zimmerman, when you see Stephen Strasburg, (Max) Scherzer, everybody do that, I’m happy because we’re together. We’re family and we enjoy it.”
So that made for an enjoyable second inning at the yard. And they weren’t done.
Schwarber, who grounded out in his second at-bat, stepped to the plate again in the fifth. And he again took Eickhoff deep, this time to right-center for his fifth multi-homer game during the most remarkable 17-game stretch in team history.
That’s 15 homers in 17 days for Schwarber, the most homers in that few days in major league history, according to Stats Inc. And that’s 11 homers in nine games for Schwarber, a feat previously achieved by only one other man: Frank Howard, who did the same in 1968. Both sluggers, of course, did so wearing a curly W on their helmet.
“Just keep riding the wave,” Schwarber said. “Just ride the wave, don’t get too up and don’t get too down. But that’s really cool. And it’s really cool that we’re both in D.C.”
So that made for an enjoyable fifth inning at the yard. And they still weren’t done.
That’s because the Nationals pitching staff also had to do its part to ensure the club’s 12th win 15 games, so many of them defined by a pitching staff that has received contributions from everyone, including a previously unknown journeyman named Espino.
He’s no longer unknown in these parts. Davey Martinez’s favorite Swiss army Knife, capable of starting, mopping up or even closing, got the ball to start tonight for the third time this season. And he didn’t disappoint.
With a fastball that barely topped 90 mph, a curveball he threw for a strike 15 of 18 times, and the occasional changeup and slider just for show, Espino carved up the Mets. He needed only 67 pitches to complete his five innings, leaving the opposition 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position, and striking out Jeff McNeil with a devastating pair of curveballs to end the fifth and strand a runner on second.
“I turned around and I saw somebody was warming up in the bullpen,” Espino said. “So I was trying to get through that inning. I definitely wanted to make really good pitches. I was hoping for a strikeout to try to get out of the inning. And I threw a changeup that he fouled off, then back-to-back curveballs and they were both perfect. That was the key. They were both perfect curveballs.”
Espino now boasts a 2.02 ERA and 0.869 WHIP across 35 2/3 innings this year. In the last two weeks, he has notched his first career win, his first career save and now his second career win.
But this one didn’t come as easily as Espino thought it might when he departed. Working with a depleted bullpen that was without Daniel Hudson and Kyle Finnegan due to injuries and Tanner Rainey and Austin Voth due to recent usage, Martinez had to turn to some others to get through the game.
Sam Clay recorded five outs, but allowed one unearned run in the seventh. Wander Suero recorded a big strikeout of Francisco Lindor to end the seventh, but departed after allowing a leadoff single in the eighth. Justin Miller really made a mess of things serving up back-to-back homers to Pete Alonso and Billy McKinney to bring the lead down to a scant one run and force Martinez to summon Hand for a five-out save.
“I don’t want to use Hand for five outs,” Martinez said. “But I can’t say enough about him. He just takes the ball. We ask him to do different things and he always takes the ball. Kudos to him.”
Except Hand’s task became so much easier when Zimmerman launched a three-run homer to left-center in the bottom of the eighth, making up for the three runs Miller had surrendered in the top of the inning and sheepishly receiving a curtain call for it.
“Zim coming up right there with the biggest home run of the night, putting the extra insurance runs in,” Schwarber said. “A 100 mph heater heater, just turns it around? It’s fantastic.”
Put all of that together, and, yes, that made for an extremely enjoyable night at the yard.