If their collective motivations at this point have dwindled to trying to avoid a 100-loss season, several Nationals nonetheless have ample motivation over the season’s final two weeks on a personal level.
For Juan Soto, there’s a potential second straight batting title to chase, not to mention a 1.000 OPS that would’ve sounded unthinkable three months ago. For Tanner Rainey, there’s a chance to re-establish some credibility as a big league reliever at the end of a lost season. And for Paolo Espino, there’s an opportunity to close out an already inspiring first major league season exactly as he started it: Pumping strikes, getting outs and giving his team a chance to win.
Espino was up to his old tricks this afternoon, tossing 5 2/3 scoreless innings to lead the Nats to a 3-0 victory over the Rockies and avoid a weekend sweep in their penultimate home series of 2021.
The 34-year-old had help, from a Nationals bullpen that churned out 3 1/3 scoreless innings to complete the shutout (with Rainey striking out the side in the seventh in his return from Triple-A Rochester) to Soto (whose 454-foot homer to right-center produced the day’s signature highlight).
“I don’t even remember the last time I hit a homer. It’s been so long,” Soto said with a laugh during his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “It’s just always fun to hit a homer and see how far the ball lands. It is pretty exciting.”
Soto’s third-inning blast, which nearly reached the concourse behind the deepest corner of the lower deck in deep right-center field, was his 26th of the season (and, for the record, his first since Aug. 8 in Atlanta). It gave him 100 runs scored. And it briefly made him the National League’s leading hitter by percentage points over former teammates Trea Turner and Bryce Harper, setting up a furious finish over the next two weeks.
“I was thinking about it the other day: We were just teammates all together, and now we’re fighting for the batting title,” Soto said. “It is amazing. I talked with Trea the other day, and he’s just relaxed, he’s happy. I think it’s going to be fun. Let’s see how it goes ‘til the end of the year.”
But Espino stood at the top of the list of contributors today with a performance that represented the best of what he’s been all year.
Espino has produced his share of quality starts this season, but notable in this case was the success he enjoyed with a fastball that registered 88-90 mph. He induced six swings-and-misses on that pitch alone, and six of his seven strikeouts came on fastballs.
“I don’t throw hard, so I try to mix as much as I can,” he said. “And I think when I throw all those off-speed, and everybody’s aware that my off-speed is there, I think I can get by people by throwing some fastballs every now and then. I think that was the key today. It worked really good today.”
The first three of Espino’s strikeouts came in the top of the first, with Charlie Blackmon and Trevor Story among his victims. He proceeded to notch at least one more in each of his next four innings, matching his career high with seven overall while also keeping the Rockies from scoring.
Along the way, the journeyman right-hander surpassed a meaningful milestone: 100 innings pitched this season. And today’s performance brought his ERA back under the 4.00 mark. It may not sound like much, but for the 34-year-old with barely any big league experience prior to this season? There’s nothing insignificant about it.
“My dad asked me: ‘What do you think your goals are now for the end of the season?’ ” Espino recalled. “One of the things I told him was I wanted to throw over 100 innings, and I was able to do it. And the other one I told him was I hope I can get to 100 strikeouts (he’s now at 90, with two starts left on his schedule). Yeah, I do want to try to get over it.”
Espino departed with two outs in the sixth, his pitch count still a relatively modest 91, but two runners on base in a 2-0 game. Davey Martinez entrusted that situation to Austin Voth, and though the reliever did issue a walk to load the bases, he wriggled his way out of the jam when Ryan McMahon’s drive to left field died at the warning track.
Now, the Nationals still needed three more good innings of work from a bullpen that rarely this summer has been able to string together three good innings in succession.
Rainey was up first, fresh off a successful stint at Triple-A that concluded with three straight perfect innings and nine strikeouts. And when he struck out the side in his return today, throwing 11 of his 13 pitches for strikes, the right-hander capped off a brilliant week between Rochester and D.C. that saw him strike out all 12 batters he faced.
“Everything feels like it’s synced back up,” Rainey said. “I’ve got obviously better command. It’s kind of been that way for the last week or so. Once I started building back up in Rochester, I played with a few things as far as timing goes. Just tried to get everything synced back up to what was normal for me.”
Add a combined scoreless eighth from Mason Thompson and Andres Machado, then another zero in the ninth from Kyle Finnegan (despite a leadoff walk) to earn the save, and on this glorious September Sunday, the Nationals were able to smile as they exchanged high-fives in the middle of the diamond.
“They threw the ball really well today,” Martinez said. “We’ve been asking them to do different things, different roles. The biggest thing is constantly staying on them about attacking the strike zone. And they were good today. They were really good today.”