They waited all night for the hit that would break a deadlocked ballgame. Just one hit at the right moment to drive in the go-ahead run and put them on a path to sweep the Marlins.
And when the Nationals couldn’t get the job done during nine innings of traditional baseball, they were left to try to do it in extra innings of non-traditional baseball.
Which didn’t suit them very well. It was Miami that pushed across two runs in the top of the 10th off closer Brad Hand, while the Nats went down quietly in the bottom of the inning, left to suffer a disheartening 3-1 loss that brought a halt to their winning streak at three games.
A game that saw both sides squander what few scoring opportunities they had for nine innings ultimately fell the visitors’ way, spoiling the home team’s shot at a sweep and more momentum heading into this weekend’s Battle of the Beltways at Camden Yards.
The Nationals bullpen had been lights-out, picking up where Erick Fedde left off at the end of six quality innings. Kyle Finnegan, Daniel Hudson and Hand each pitched a scoreless frame, neither getting into any trouble, helping set the stage for their teammates to rally in the bottom of the ninth.
But when that didn’t happen, Hand returned to the mound to begin the 10th, with an automatic runner placed on second base. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for the left-hander; this was the fifth time this season he has pitched both the ninth and 10th innings in a game. And in each of the previous four instances, he was scored upon in the 10th.
“It’s a conversation with Hand,” manager Davey Martinez said of his decision to bring his closer back out. “He said he felt good. We know we have a day off tomorrow. And he’s been throwing the ball well. For me, when your closer says he feels good (and) you start out with a runner on second base, you’ve got to give him the opportunity.”
Tonight, though, Hand made it 0-for-5 when pitching the 10th after pitching the ninth. He would watch the automatic runner, Lewis Brinson, reach third on a sacrifice bunt, then put himself in a bigger jam when he walked Jon Berti. Pinch-hitter Jorge Alfaro, the last man on the Miami bench, then ripped a first-pitch slider into the left field corner for the go-ahead double.
And when Miguel Rojas lofted a sacrifice fly to center to score Berti from third, the Marlins had two runs off Hand (only one of them officially charged to him).
“It’s the same,” Hand said of his approach when pitching in extra innings. “It’s like giving up a leadoff double. When they bunt the first guy over, (I’m) trying to get a strikeout there. Made some good pitches to Berti, but just missed on a few of them.”
Needing two runs to extend the game and three to win, the Nationals wouldn’t so much as advance Andrew Stevenson from his perch at second base in the bottom of the 10th, going down in order against Marlins closer Yimi García to end the game.
“I was surprised (by the lack of offense),” Martinez said. “We had a couple opportunities. We just didn’t hit the ball tonight. The good news is, Fedde threw the ball really well.”
Indeed, he did. On the heels of a wretched start against the Padres in which he needed 35 pitches just to complete the first inning and was pulled after walking four of the 11 batters he faced overall, Fedde took the mound tonight knowing he had to be better. Much better.
So imagine how elated he and the home dugout were when he retired the side in the top of the first on five pitches, all of them strikes.
“I felt really good in my bullpen before, and when I stepped on that mound, my thought was: I’m going to throw strike one, and then continue to be aggressive from there,” Fedde said. “And I think I put the Marlins on their heels quickly and just tried to continue that throughout the game.”
Fedde couldn’t quite keep up a three-outs-in-five-pitches pace all night - who could? - but he continued to pitch effectively because he continued to throw strikes. Only one Marlins batter drew a walk off him during his six innings, and he averaged only 14 pitches per inning, getting quick outs and rarely laboring on the mound.
The only run to score while Fedde was on the mound was unearned, the result of a grounder bobbled at third by Josh Harrison in the top of the fourth. The Marlins would end up loading the bases with one out, and though they did push one run across, Fedde limited the damage to that, thanks to a 4-6-3 double play and a grounder to first.
He did look a bit gassed by the time he finished the sixth, his pitch count at 84. But as he returned to the dugout to receive handshakes and high-fives, one emotion in particular came to Fedde.
“Relief,” he said. “I mean, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t stressing. The last couple (starts) have been pretty awful. To get that and give the team a chance to win that game, it’s nice. And it gives me confidence going forward.”
It was a 1-1 game at point because a Nationals lineup that had been averaging 7.2 runs over its last 12 games was held in check by Nick Neidert, Miami’s emergency starter pressed into duty after Sandy Alcantara went on bereavement leave. Making his fifth career start, Neidert didn’t pitch a clean inning, but he took advantage of three double plays off the bats of Trea Turner and Juan Soto to prevent the Nats from mounting any kind of sustained rally.
The lone run came via a fourth-inning walk by Harrison and then a well-timed decision by the veteran to take off from first base on a 2-2 pitch to Stevenson. Stevenson drove the ball over right fielder Adam Duvall’s head, and because he was running on the pitch Harrison was able to score with ease.
That’s all the Nationals would get off Neidert, Richard Bleier and Anthony Bass, the Marlins’ first two relievers of the game. And so this one was guaranteed to be decided late, the team that could produce one more clutch hit likely to emerge victorious.
“We’ve played this game long enough to know things like tonight happen,” said Josh Bell, who twice made the third out of an inning with a runner in scoring position. “Obviously, we expected to score more runs there, but it didn’t happen for us. We couldn’t get anything going, couldn’t get the W.”