If they’re going to make their move over the next week and a half and convince their general manager he should buy at the trade deadline, the Nationals are going to have to win games on the shoulders of their stars. That’s what Mike Rizzo said this afternoon in discussing how his roster, depleted by injuries, could still find a path to contention in a wide-open National League East.
“The more your core guys get hurt, the more pressure is put on your star players,” Rizzo said in a pregame session with beat reporters, singling out Trea Turner and Juan Soto in particular. “And that’s where your Treas and your Juans have to come to the forefront and really carry this team.”
So consider what happened tonight during a 6-3 victory over the Marlins as the first message sent from said stars to their boss: They intend to claw their way back into the race.
Behind a flurry of clutch, two-out RBI hits from the likes of Turner, Soto and Ryan Zimmerman, then a late pinch-hit homer from Josh Bell, the Nationals took an early lead and then rallied again late after their bullpen gave up the lead.
They saw yet another regular, recently acquired second baseman Alcides Escobar, depart after getting hit by a pitch near his right wrist, though the news postgame was encouraging. But they found a way to defeat the last-place Marlins for the second straight night and continue to put pressure on the first-place Mets, who lost to the Reds.
At 45-49, there’s still a long way to go. But this was a nice and important step that needed to be taken. One night after a laugher of an 18-1 victory, the Nats gutted out a tight win to ensure at least a series victory and possibly a series sweep Wednesday night.
“I think we’ve thought that since, kind of, day one,” Turner said when asked about the stars leading the way. “We know that we’re a big part of the team. And if we want to be good, we’re going to have to contribute.”
The key hits in this one came with two outs in the bottom of the sixth, only minutes after Austin Voth surrendered a three-run homer to Adam Duvall to leave the Nationals trailing for the first time. It began with a double from Tres Barrera (the rookie’s third extra-base hit in the last two nights), then continued with a pinch-hit RBI single by Yadiel Hernandez off left-hander Richard Bleier.
“He’s had great success against left and right in the minor leagues,” manager Davey Martinez said of Hernandez. “He just puts the ball in play. ... He took some pretty nasty sliders to get a pitch up where he could put the ball in play, and it was a great at-bat.”
Bleier would then plunk Escobar with an up-and-in fastball, and the veteran infielder crumpled to the ground in pain, grabbing his right wrist. He would depart, leaving the Nationals short-handed yet again and worried they had just lost another infielder.
Martinez breathed a sigh of relief afterward, though, upon learning X-rays came back negative and Escobar was diagnosed only with a wrist contusion. He’s day-to-day.
The injury didn’t cost them tonight, because their two best players were due up next. And each delivered clutch hits to take the lead and then extend it. Turner greeted righty Anthony Bender with a first-pitch single to right-center for his 47th RBI of the season. Soto would follow with a laser to left-center for his 54th RBI, the last 12 of them having come in five games since the All-Star break.
Soto’s hit was the Nationals’ fifth with two outs that drove in a run tonight, a welcome development for a lineup that had been relying on the home run in recent weeks.
“I really liked the at-bats with two strikes tonight,” Martinez said.
Re-handed a two-run lead, the back of the Nationals bullpen took care of business the rest of the way. Kyle Finnegan and Daniel Hudson each retired the side with ease, and Brad Hand rebounded from Sunday’s blown save against the Padres with a scoreless ninth to wrap things up.
The pitching went exactly according to Martinez’s plan entering the night, even if there was one key hiccup along the way. With all of his top relievers fresh and available, the Nats manager knew he wouldn’t need to push Paolo Espino beyond his limit. The veteran right-hander had just thrown 51 pitches in relief Friday night, so truth be told Martinez went into this one just hoping for five quality innings from his starter.
And that’s exactly what he got. With his trademark go-right-at-‘em pitching style, Espino kept the ball in the strike zone and made the Marlins try to beat him. Which they couldn’t do.
Despite allowing four hits through his first three innings, Espino kept Miami off the scoreboard. And by the time he walked off the mound at the end of the fifth, he had retired eight in a row and posted five zeros.
“Today was one of those days where everything you throw, you feel comfortable, you feel good,” he said. “That was a good feeling today.”
But with his pitch count at 73, on top of the 51 he threw four nights prior, Espino was done. Martinez would need to entrust a 2-0 lead to his bullpen, beginning with Voth.
That plan backfired in a matter of minutes. Voth issued a leadoff walk, surrendered a single and then served up a towering home run to Duvall that turned that 2-0 lead into a 3-2 deficit and left plenty among the crowd of 17,362 muttering about Martinez’s decision to pull his starter.
By night’s end, they weren’t muttering anymore. They were applauding a team that showed some resilience in coming back to win tonight and perhaps putting added pressure on their GM to keep adding in the coming days and fortify a roster that keeps chugging along despite the continued loss of key members.
“We’ve got good players in here,” Turner said. “We’ve got a lot of grinders and professional hitters, and that’s what you get when you have veterans, when you have guys that can put at-bats together. I’m not surprised. Am I glad that we’re doing it? Heck, yeah. But I’m not surprised.”