We’ve seen it before. We saw it again tonight. The 2019 Washington Nationals, their backs up against the wall, found a way to win a game it looked like they were about to lose.
It was a seesaw affair from the start, with Harold Ramirez homering off Anibal Sanchez in the first inning to draw first blood for the Miami Marlins and the Nats striking back in the bottom of the first to take the lead. The Fish rallied again off the Nats’ leaky bullpen in the seventh, then once more as they took back the lead on a ninth-inning home run that stunned the home faithful at Nationals Park.
Then the Nats went to work.
Pinch-hitter Howie Kendrick, clutch all year, smacked a leadoff single to right off veteran reliever Ryne Stanek. Trea Turner worked a walk. Gerardo Parra popped up an attempted sacrifice bunt, but it didn’t matter when Miami catcher Jorge Alfaro (who also struck out three times today) couldn’t glove a high fastball to Anthony Rendon, allowing Kendrick and Turner to move up to third and second respectively.
Rendon did his thing, notching his third hit with a solid line drive to left-center. He was showered, deservedly, with M-V-P chants as the Nats celebrated their 75th win of 2019. He’s now in pole position for the National League batting title and is a threat for the RBI crown as well. When you’re winning two Triple Crown categories, your name better be in the MVP conversation. And the Nats better be prepared to pony up to keep their best player in town this winter.
The Atlanta Braves won too, so the Nats don’t gain ground in the division, but they widen their lead over the Philadelphia Phillies (who lost) for a wild card spot and still lead the Chicago Cubs for home field advantage by 2.5 games.
There was a scare earlier on when Victor Robles was hit on his finger bunting. It conjured up images of a similar injury that sidelined Trea Turner for several weeks during the first half of the season. But after a quick checkout, Robles was cleared to stay in the game, and he flashed his usual strong arm on a throw to the plate that nearly erased the speedy Jon Berti in the seventh inning. It looks like the worst-case scenario was avoided.
And now, a rant:
This game was way more exciting than it needed to be.
GM Mike Rizzo had two prime directives at the trade deadline last month: don’t push the Nats’ payroll over the competitive balance tax threshold, and don’t give up any top prospects. With prices running high for elite closers (several of whom, like Ian Kennedy, Kirby Yates, Ken Giles, and Felipe Vazquez, ended up not moving at all), Rizzo decided to go for quantity over quality, trading fringe prospects for Hunter Strickland (coming off a lat injury), Roenis Elias (replacement-level in 2019 despite filling in as the Seattle Mariners’ closer), and Daniel Hudson (decent setup guy for the Toronto Blue Jays but outperforming his peripherals and without significant ninth-inning experience).
Famously, in 2017, Rizzo pushed his chips into the center and acquired a trio of lights-out late-game relievers fans quickly dubbed “the Law Firm”. Instead of getting a new Law Firm, Rizzo got the CPAs: the cheapest pitchers available.
All three of the CPAs had a role in blowing two leads tonight against the cellar-dwelling Marlins. Sanchez gutted through five innings, limiting the damage to two runs despite not recording a 1-2-3 inning in the start. Wander Suero in the sixth inning and Fernando Rodney in the eighth inning were sharp and set down the side in order. But the Marlins roughed up Strickland, who loaded the bases and let in a run before recording an out; Elias, who was tagged with the first blown save of the evening as he entered the game and immediately walked lefty-swinging rookie Isan Diaz to force in the tying run; and Hudson, who allowed an infield hit to Nats-killer Ramirez followed immediately by a long home run to straightaway center field by Starlin Castro for another blown save.
Did manager Davey Martinez have better options? Maybe. Elias, who has extreme reverse platoon splits, made his first appearance since August 1 with the bases loaded and a lefty in the batter’s box. Hudson has been filling in as the closer with Sean Doolittle on the injured list, but the 32-year-old journeyman has all of twelve career saves (a total that did not increase tonight). But he made defensible choices that simply did not pan out. Maybe he should ask his boss why he didn’t give him better pitchers to work with, either over the offseason or at the trade deadline. The truth is, you have to give to get, and Rizzo got the players he was able to get within his set parameters.
We’d be talking about a different Nationals team this season if the offseason acquisitions of Kyle Barraclough and Trevor Rosenthal had worked out; if longtime Nats lefty Matt Grace, DFA’d after struggling to one of the worst years of any full-time reliever this season, had been able to repeat the fine results he had in 2018; or if the likes of Koda Glover and Austen Williams, instead of getting hurt, had finally stepped up and realized the potential they showed in the minor leagues as late-game weapons.
Then again, we’d also be talking about a different Nationals team if not for a few of the midseason tweaks Rizzo has made. Rodney has blown three saves but also looked like his former dominant self at times, as he did today. Parra scored a key run today. Asdrubal Cabrera had a first-inning RBI that tied the game. Meanwhile, Dan Jennings, Jonny Venters, and Michael Blazek were gone almost as quickly as they arrived. But Javy Guerra has been a strong addition, and while the CPAs were lousy tonight, Hudson and Strickland have been part of some important wins too.
The Nats are rolling and they’re now a season-best 17 games above .500, after cratering at 12 games below in late May. But when our prize acquisitions at the deadline can’t even hold a lead — twice — against the lowly Marlins (who sink to an unfathomable 48-86), it makes you worry about how a one-game, winner-takes-all Wild Card Game in October might go. Let’s hope this team learns some important lessons in the time it takes to get there.