At the end of a weekend dominated by tragic events that occurred outside Nationals Park, the energy level inside the ballpark was understandably down. Some of that had to do with circumstances out of the home team’s control, but some of it also had to do with the performance that team had put forth against a Padres club that clearly looked superior throughout the series.
A wild, back-and-forth affair that saw the Nationals blow the lead, then retake it, then blow it again left everyone in the park emotionally drained.
But then came one final rally in the bottom of the ninth, allowing everyone to go home happy. Alcides Escobar’s drive over center fielder Trent Grisham’s head brought home Tres Barrera with the run that sealed an 8-7 victory, ending a miserable weekend on an uplifting note.
“Especially to be able to give the fans that great win today after having that unfortunate incident yesterday, where most of us felt a little bit of a moment of fear of what happened,” Escobar said via interpreter Octavio Martinez in a postgame Zoom session with reporters. “Luckily everything worked out and we were able to win today’s game.”
Needing to rally after closer Brad Hand blew a one-run lead in the top of the ninth, the Nats pulled it off against Padres All-Star closer Mark Melancon. Barrera, the rookie catcher pressed into duty, lined a one-out single to left to get things started. Victor Robles then reached after getting drilled in the left arm by a 3-2 fastball (moments after he was sent back to the plate upon fouling a bunt off himself).
Up stepped Escobar, the recently acquired veteran infielder who had homered in the previous inning. And this time, he drove a pitch deep to center field, over Grisham’s head, allowing Barrera to scamper home from second and set off a celebration in a ballpark that experienced the full range of emotions.
“We all traded blows there, from the seventh inning on,” starter Max Scherzer said. “They were hitting homers. And then we came back and hit homers. Just a hard-fought game, both sides. And fortunately we were able to hit last and get that run that counts. It’s always exciting when you do it on a walk-off.”
Everything seemed to be working out wonderfully a few minutes earlier when Juan Soto’s two-run, opposite-field homer off reliever Emilio Pagán capped a stirring, bottom-of-the-eighth comeback by the Nats, who rode that homer plus Escobar’s solo shot earlier in the inning to take a 7-6 lead and put themselves in position to enjoy a win that would feel as cathartic as anything folks around here had felt in a while.
“Every win means a lot for us,” Soto said. “We know we’re not that far behind, so every win counts. To beat (the Padres) - they’ve been great the whole year - it’s just amazing for us. We’ve been battling, we’ve been fighting the whole series.”
But before they could enjoy this one, they needed Hand to record three outs in the top of the ninth. And Hand could not do that before allowing the tying run to score. And he truly did allow it in this case.
Hand and the Nationals let pinch-runner Jorge Mateo steal both second and third bases without a care, never attempting to throw him out and not even attempting to cover third on the second swipe. And that put him in position to waltz home on Grisham’s two-out, two-strike bloop single to left.
“When you have your closer in there like that, and you’re up a run, your focus is for him to just get outs,” manager Davey Martinez said. “We’ve got two outs. We need one more out. We just wanted him to focus on outs, not worry about the runner. I’ve said this before: You start worrying about the runner over there, you lose focus on what you’re trying to do to the hitter there. He understands. He was mad at himself because of the walk (to Victor Caratini, before Mateo pinch-ran for him). That’s when things really started for him.”
It was Hand’s first blown save since May 12 against the Phillies; he had converted 16 opportunities in a row. Though he did redeem himself later by striking out Manny Machado with the bases loaded, at least leaving the game tied.
All this after what should’ve been an inspiring rally in the bottom of the eighth. Escobar got it started with an unlikely drive to right-center, the light-hitting infielder’s first since joining the roster earlier in the month. Trea Turner followed with a bloop double to right, and that brought Soto to the plate with a chance to tie the game or better.
Pagán nearly caught the slugger looking at a perfectly placed 2-2 cutter on the lower inside corner, but plate umpire Chris Segal didn’t give him the call. And moments later, Soto drove a 3-2 fastball to left, just over the fence for a two-run homer to flip the score the give the Nationals the lead.
It was Soto’s third homer of the weekend, his third homer since participating in last week’s Home Run Derby, which he hoped might turn his season around.
“He’s being very aggressive in the strike zone, and he’s staying on the ball,” Martinez said. “He’s taking his hits ... to left field. And he’s getting balls up, and he’s hammering them over there. When he’s doing that, he’s really, really good.”
Soto’s latest homer would’ve made a winner out of Daniel Hudson, who crouched to the ground in dismay in the top of the inning after Manny Machado launched his 98 mph fastball over the left field bullpen for the two-run blast that broke a 4-4 tie.
And it added more tension to an already tense ballpark, given the non-baseball events of the last 24 hours.
The lack of energy that accompanied the resumption of Saturday night’s game, which ended in a 10-4 Nationals loss, seemed to be mostly gone by the time Scherzer took the mound at 3:05 p.m. for the day’s originally scheduled game. An announced crowd of 27,221 was enthusiastic, cheered for all the usual positive moments by the home team and generally seemed to act like this was a normal Sunday afternoon at the park.
It helped that Scherzer was in peak form early on, striking out the side in the top of the first and pitching into the fourth without surrendering a hit.
And it helped that the Nats lineup strung together one of its most impressive two-out rallies of the season in the bottom of the third to stake the ace to a 4-0 lead. Josh Harrison, Andrew Stevenson (called up from Triple-A Rochester to serve as the 27th man for this game, which was treated like a doubleheader for roster purposes) and Barrera each delivered run-scoring hits with two outs, putting a dent into Padres starter Joe Musgrove and energizing the crowd.
The mood was quickly deflated, though, when Scherzer ran into a familiar and troublesome foe: the fourth inning. It did him in at Petco Park in his last start, when the Padres scored seven runs to turn an 8-0 deficit into a close game. And it did him in again today, though to a lesser extent, when he gave up a pair of singles and then a three-run homer to Eric Hosmer that turned the Nationals’ 4-0 lead into a 4-3 nail-biter.
“Look, some of these things happen. I’m a flyball pitcher. Sometimes I give up home runs,” Scherzer said. “Hopefully, they’re solos. The three-run shots are what really frustrate me. So for me to give up a three-run shot today, especially when we scored four runs in the (previous inning), to try to put up a big zero in that situation, that’s the pitch that you want to be better at.”
It remained 4-3 into the seventh inning, despite several golden opportunities for the Nats to extend the lead. They loaded the bases with nobody out in the fifth but came away with nothing after Gerardo Parra lined into a double play and Scherzer struck out. And they stranded two runners on base in the sixth when Josh Bell lined out to left and Harrison lined out to center.
So Scherzer had no margin for error when he took the mound in the seventh. And then the margin disappeared altogether when Jurickson Profar blasted a cutter into the second deck down the right field line.
That was only the fourth hit Scherzer allowed in seven innings - the first time a member of the Nationals rotation had completed seven since Joe Ross did it in Miami a full 20 games ago - but all four runners came around to score via the two homers he surrendered.
Fortunately for him, it didn’t prevent everyone from still having reason to celebrate at the end of a draining weekend.
“I think it means more to myself and the players knowing that the fans came back after yesterday,” Martinez said. “They came to support us, and it was huge. Our players, they feed off of that. It was a good day, for all Nats fans and for the Nationals.”