They knew the schedule was about to ease up. They just needed to get through a daunting 14-game stretch against the National League West’s three contenders, sandwiched around the All-Star break, and then hope the tide would begin to turn once they had a chance to start facing lesser competition.
And if tonight’s 18-1 thrashing of the last-place Marlins is a sign of things to come, the Nationals might just have another run in them. And Jon Lester might not have to worry about his immediate job security.
Whether it’s enough to get a still-depleted roster back to .500 and right into the thick of a wide-open NL East race won’t be known for another couple weeks. But the Nats certainly did everything they needed to do in the first of this 70-game sprint to the finish line and then some, overwhelming an outmanned Miami club with as comfortable a win as they’ve enjoyed in some time.
“Hopefully, here soon, we can start to get some guys back (from the injured list),” Lester said on his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “And that’ll be kind of like our little trade deadline and move us forward toward the end of the season.”
Teeing off on Ross Detwiler, the Nationals bashed their long-ago first-round pick for eight runs before making four outs. Four of the 10 batters the veteran lefty faced - Juan Soto, Josh Bell, Tres Barrera, Trea Turner - homered. And when they added two more runs off reliever David Hess, they had themselves a whopping 10-0 lead after only two innings.
Turner tripled in the first and homered in the second, giving everyone reason to wonder if he might have a shot at hitting for the cycle for the second time this season and record fourth time in his career. He would make a couple of outs after that and be pinch-hit for in the seventh, with Jordy Mercer still driving in two runs with a double off the wall.
Soto, meanwhile, continued his torrid surge at the plate, homering twice (one of them off catcher Sandy León in garbage time) and adding a double and a walk. He has now homered five times in four games since participating in the Home Run Derby at Coors Field.
“It just makes everybody better,” manager Davey Martinez said. “It picks everybody up. And it stretches out our lineup tremendously. He’s swinging the bat well, and he’s hitting the ball all over the field very hard.”
And then there was Barrera, the rookie catcher pressed into starting duties for the second straight day and performing like he wants more opportunities. His 420-foot homer to lead off the bottom of the second was the first of his career and came on the heels of a key single during Sunday’s game-winning rally.
“I kind of blacked out running the bases,” said Barrera, who was given the silent treatment when he returned to the dugout before teammates finally mobbed him to celebrate. “I was just trying to get a good pitch to hit. Just since I’ve been called up I’ve been trying to help the team win games, try to put some wins together and stay in this playoff hunt.”
The biggest star, though, was Lester, who not only put together his best pitching performance in a month but also his best hitting performance of the season.
Pitching with the benefit of a huge lead, the 37-year-old lefty tossed seven scoreless innings. And then he topped it off with a pair of hits, including a 419-foot, no-doubt homer to straightaway center field in the bottom of the fifth, shocking the crowd and bringing unbridled joy to the dugout.
It was the fourth home run of Lester’s career, the first by any Nationals pitcher since July 18, 2019, when Stephen Strasburg had to join a dugout dance party in Atlanta.
“He fell behind, and I was trying to hit a heater,” Lester said of his swing off reliever David Hess. “I was guessing. I don’t know how other pitchers hit, but I’m probably the idiot that guesses along like I would pitch guys. Just figured he was going to throw me a heater and tried to be on time. Got it and fortunately didn’t miss it. Pretty cool moment.”
The homer, of course, was the cherry on top of a season-best performance by Lester, who sorely needed one of these after a string of laborious starts that saw his ERA skyrocket from 3.60 to 5.54 and left his hold on a spot in the Nats rotation on perilous ground, perhaps saved only by the fact both Strasburg and Joe Ross remain on the 10-day injured list.
Aggressively attacking the strike zone and recording quick outs, Lester cruised through his start while minimal effort. He struck out a season-high seven batters, didn’t walk anybody and needed only 81 pitches to complete seven innings, his longest start since July 27, 2019 for the Cubs.
“I’m just glad I was able to pitch some innings,” he said. “It’s been kind of a struggle lately with innings. So the simple fact of being able to get deeper in the game ... my pitch count was manageable at the time. All those things are positives. Anytime the guys go out and score eight runs in the first two innings, that obviously makes our jobs a lot easier. You don’t have to be as fine. You can attack a lot more. And that’s kind of what we did.”
It all made for a highly enjoyable Monday evening for a crowd of 15,283 and the home team, which had desperately awaited this week after a miserable 3-11 stretch against the Dodgers, Padres and Giants that undid much of the good that took place in June.
Now, though, there’s an opportunity to gain back the ground that was lost. The Nationals host the Marlins for three games, then face the Orioles for three over the weekend in Baltimore.
By the time they head to Philadelphia next week for the first of 31 remaining games against the NL East’s three other contenders, they hope they’ve put themselves right in the thick of a pennant race that may not look like any they’ve previously participated in.
“Keep playing. Anything can happen,” Martinez said. “Keep playing hard. We’ve still got a lot of baseball. We’ve got a very good team, I know that. I’ve said this before: When our pitching gives us some length, the back end of our bullpen is going to be good. ... And we’re starting to swing the bats. We’re going to have a fun time, and we’re going to win some games.”