Earlier this summer, as the Mets were holding onto their lead in the National League East and the Nationals were starting to make their move up the standings, these late-season matchups between the two rivals loomed large. Perhaps they’d be played in front of packed houses in D.C. and New York, everyone hanging on every pitch with a division title potentially at stake.
When the Nats walked into Citi Field this evening, though, the stakes bore no resemblance to what anybody on either side hoped. The Nationals are in full-scale rebuilding mode now after a late-July sell-off. The Mets, meanwhile, are reeling after dropping 11 of 13 to the Dodgers and Giants over the last two weeks, now stuck in third place between the resurgent Braves and the teetering Phillies.
So even though tonight’s series opener proved to be a compelling, low-scoring affair, the Nationals hanging on for a 2-1 victory, it just didn’t feel like the outcome was as important as it could’ve been.
That is, not important in terms of the 2021 standings. For the Nats, this was an important night of evaluation, especially for a quartet of inexperienced relievers who were asked to protect a one-run lead and delivered in impressive fashion.
After getting five strong innings from starter Paolo Espino, Davey Martinez turned the rest of the game over to Andres Machado, Sam Clay, Kyle McGowin and Kyle Finnegan, in each case wanting to see how they would handle the situation. And in each case, they responded exactly as the Nationals hoped.
“Having a game like that is fun,” Finnegan said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “And having fun is contagious, and wins are contagious. It just gets the ball rolling, and guys start feeling good about the way they’re playing. We try not to focus too much on the outcomes, but when they go your way, it’s fun. And it should be fun, because these wins are hard. And anytime you’re able to get one, you should be able to enjoy it.”
Machado, quickly becoming one of Martinez’s trusted relievers, retired the side in the sixth. Clay, recently back from a demotion to Triple-A Rochester, retired the side with a pair of strikeouts in the seventh. McGowin, recently back from a lengthy stint on the injured list, struck out a pair in the eighth with a never-ending stream of sliders. And Finnegan, after issuing a leadoff walk to Pete Alonso (who beat him with a walk-off homer two weeks ago in the same ballpark), retired the heart of the Mets order with a couple of groundballs in the ninth to earn his sixth save in seven attempts since taking over as closer.
“Last time I stepped on that mound, it didn’t go so well for me,” Finnegan said. “So I really wanted that one. I envisioned that was the plan in my head: Try and get them on the ground there. ... When it works out exactly as you hoped it (would), it’s awesome.”
Finnegan got some help from Luis García, the 21-year-old second baseman, who made a sprawling play on Francisco Lindor’s hard smash to his right, then somehow bounced the ball to Alcides Escobar from his knees to get Alonso at second for the first out.
“You call it a bounce pass,” Martinez said with a laugh. “I thought he was bowling for a strike.”
“That first one seemed like it was slow-motion,” the right-hander said. “It seemed like it took forever to get there. I couldn’t tell if he was going to get there. Made a great play, and then had enough time to bowl a strike to second base and get the out. That was awesome.”
An early-evening storm cell delayed first pitch by 21 minutes, but given the far worse weather issues they dealt with the last time they were in New York two weeks ago, the Nationals weren’t about to complain. And neither the rain nor their late-night arrival from Miami seemed to negatively affect them from the outset.
Espino was sharp throughout, pitching around a first-inning triple by Lindor by striking out both Alonso and Javy Báez on sliders. He would make only one more mistake: a first-pitch fastball to Báez in the bottom of the fourth, which the free-swinging infielder blasted to right-center for his 25th homer of the season.
“My intention was to throw a ball away, down and away, but I left it up and in the middle, and he was able to put a good swing on it,” Espino said. “It was definitely a mistake on my part. I mean, that happens. Next time, I’ll probably do a better job of doing what I wanted to do.”
Otherwise, Espino was fantastic, inducing 14 swings and misses in only five innings, nine of those off his slider alone. That led to a career-high seven strikeouts for the journeyman right-hander, who usually makes his living by inducing weak contact, not missing bats.
Even with all the strikeouts, Espino completed five innings on a scant 68 pitches. And though he’d reached the sixth inning only once previously this season, if ever there seemed a time to give him another shot, this was it.
Martinez, though, didn’t want to risk letting Espino face the Mets lineup a third time, so he turned a 2-1 game over to his bullpen right then and there and hoped for the best.
“I thought that was the play for him,” Martinez said. “He gave us five strong innings. I mapped out what I wanted to do before the game. Sometimes it works out the way you plan it working out.”
“I was feeling good, but I also understand how the game goes,” Espino said. “Those are decisions they make throughout the game, and I respect that. It was a great decision. The bullpen did an awesome job.”
The Nationals held their slim lead thanks to the pair of runs they scored in succession in the top of the third off Rich Hill, though truth be told, they had a chance to inflict even more damage against the ageless lefty. They loaded the bases with nobody out and had the heart of their lineup coming to the plate, but after Juan Soto’s grounder to first brought home one run and Josh Bell’s single to left brought home another, Carter Kieboom and Lane Thomas struck out in succession to end the rally.
The Nats would put seven runners on base overall in five innings against Hill, but would not bring any more home, adding to the pressure on their bullpen to be perfect the rest of the way.
And on this night, that ever-evolving group was perfect and perhaps learned something in the process.
“I think getting experience in that role is great,” Finnegan said. “I’m enjoying it. The high-leverage situations, the pressure situations, are great for my confidence. I’ve been able to get the job done a few times, and just really trying to enjoy the experience.”