There is little sense at this point judging a Nationals-Marlins game on the performance of the two clubs after five or six innings. As much as they’ve faced each other in the last month, everyone should understand by now every game is going to be decided late, either by the bullpens or by some other manner of back-and-forth chaos.
So it was again tonight in Miami, where the two teams at the bottom of the National League East standings engaged in another high-scoring affair that went right down to the wire - and then some - and ultimately was decided by yet another invocation of the interference call that famously went against the Nationals in the 2019 World Series.
Wouldn’t you know the Nationals wound up losing 8-7 in part because they failed to score with the bases loaded in the top of the 10th when Josh Bell was called out for interfering with the tail end of a 3-2-3 double play, the same Rule 5.09(a)(11) that previous was enforced against Trea Turner twice, most notably in Game 6 of the Fall Classic in Houston?
As he was that late October night at Minute Maid Park, manager Davey Martinez was irate about the umpires’ decision to invoke the rule in that situation.
“He ran inside (the designated runner’s lane), but when he touched the base, the ball hit him in the back,” Martinez said during a postgame Zoom session with reporters in which he had to catch himself not to curse. “He was already on the base. It’s a judgment at that point. I get it. The ball hits him inside the line, and he’s still running? Yeah, great. But come on, guys - use your freaking common sense one time. It’s a brutal, brutal freaking play. It really is. It’s horrible.”
The game would end a few minutes later when the Nationals gave up the winning run after Sam Clay let automatic runner Jazz Chisholm Jr. steal third, then score on a wild pitch that came close to hitting batter Lewis Brinson in the foot, the latest in a string of ugly losses for a 61-89 ballclub.
The Nats pleaded with the umpires to review that play, just as they did the interference play in the top of the inning (though in that case they wanted to see if catcher Nick Fortes actually touched the plate while turning the 3-2-3 double play). Both times they were denied, with crew chief Bill Miller claiming their 20-second window to challenge a call had expired.
“That clock is flexible for a few seconds. We’re talking 22, 23, 24 seconds,” Miller told a pool reporter in Miami afterward. “But not a minute. Not after the game, it was 30 something seconds probably. So they just passed it. At the end of the game, they have to get our attention immediately, and say: ‘Hey, we’re looking at it.’ And there was none of that. They never alerted umpires that they were looking at the play. Either one, to be honest with you, with the force out at home plate or the end of the game.”
The Nats had every opportunity to score not just one but multiple runs in the top of the 10th but failed at fundamental baserunning. Luis García, their automatic runner, couldn’t score from second on Lane Thomas’ double off the right field wall, appearing to hold back to tag up in case the ball was caught.
“It’s deep enough where he probably could’ve gone halfway a little bit more,” Martinez said. “The ball hits the wall, he’s got a good chance to score. He was going back to tag up. It’s a really tough call as a runner, but I think you still have time if you go halfway. If he caught it, you go back and try to tag.”
García was then thrown out at the plate on Alcides Escobar’s grounder to a drawn-in shortstop. After Juan Soto was intentionally walked, Bell hit a sharp grounder to first. Lewin Díaz threw to the plate to get the lead runner, then Fortes threw back to Díaz to try to get Bell for the double play. The throw hit Bell right as he reached the base, but because he was running inside the baseline all the way down the line, he was called out for interference.
“My momentum had me in the throwing lane,” Bell said, conceding he was running in fair territory. “And, yeah, I guess it’s just part of the game right now. I don’t know how long that rule’s going to last. But it was tough feeling first (base) and then having a split second and then feeling the ball hit me and me still getting called out.”
“If the ball hits him before he gets on the base and he’s out of the baseline? Of course, he’s out,” said Martinez, who was ejected after arguing the call. “But come on. The second part of that ruling is the judgment. Judge! One umpire’s got to say: ‘Yeah, I’m not going to reward a catcher for making a bad throw.’ “
A game that saw Bell rob a home run at the left field wall and Jesús Sánchez catch a fly ball down the right field line with his bare hand also saw the Nationals commit three errors, two of them costly mistakes by shortstop Escobar.
Escobar twice couldn’t make clean plays on sharp grounders to his left, the first prolonging the bottom of the third and setting up a two-run homer, the second failing to end the bottom of the seventh and allowing the tying run to score.
That came at the end of a three-run seventh, the first two charged to Patrick Murphy, the last one scoring with Austin Voth on the mound. They were just two of six relievers the Nationals sent to the mound on this night, some more effective than others.
Nobody was more effective than Tanner Rainey, who suddenly looks like a new man after a demotion to Triple-A. For the second straight day, the right-hander struck out the side. Which, combined with his last three appearances for Rochester, means he has now struck out 15 consecutive batters in the last eight days.
By quirk of Major League Baseball’s scheduling, this was the third time Erick Fedde and Jesús Luzardo started opposite each other in the last month. Fedde has dominated the Marlins throughout his career, and his teammates had already put a hurting on Luzardo (a former Nationals prospect who was dealt to the Athletics in 2017 in the Sean Doolittle-Ryan Madson trade) in each of the previous two matchups.
They continued to put a hurting on the left-hander tonight, getting him for five runs in four innings, with two of the club’s recent young acquisitions playing a starring role.
Thomas supplied the power, launching a 413-foot solo blast to center in the top of the second, surprisingly his sixth homer in 33 games with the Nationals.
And Keibert Ruiz supplied the contact, delivering a pair of two-run singles that weren’t well-struck but were well-placed: one to shallow left field, one to shallow right field. They were welcome hits for the 23-year-old, who has struggled to make a significant impact in his first month with the Nats but has impressed the coaching staff with his approach. And he’s finally seeing results, with a trio of three-hit games over his last four games started.
That accounted for the five runs off Luzardo. The Nationals would add another off reliever Zach Pop in the fifth when García went the other way for an RBI single to score Ruiz from second.
Those five runs were enough support for Fedde, though not as much as he or his manager would’ve hoped. The right-hander at times was highly successful, retiring 15 of the 20 batters he faced. But those he didn’t retire maximized the damage against him, in the form of three homers.
Sánchez, who burned the Nationals last week in D.C., connected on a Fedde curveball for a two-run homer in the third. That came moments after Chisholm launched a solo blast nearly to the top of the upper deck in right field. And two innings later, Chisholm took Fedde deep again, this time to straightaway center field, leaving the starter with four runs attached to his name over five innings (though two were unearned due to Escobar’s first error).
“I definitely have a bad taste in my mouth after that start,” Fedde said. “Especially with the boys giving me a good lead early. I don’t want to give that back. I don’t know. I just faced them five days ago and another time earlier this year. A lot of those pitches, if I execute them, I just don’t think they leave the park.”
Ultimately, though, the starters had no bearing on the final result. That’s because these two bullpens were required to join the proceedings. And as we’ve seen in recent weeks when they get involved, they decide the outcome of games, no matter what transpired earlier.
Or, if not the relievers, the umpires when a Nationals batter is running in fair territory toward first base.