Remember when Tuesday night’s game was Max Scherzer vs. Jacob deGrom, a matchup between pitchers who had accounted for the National League’s last three Cy Young awards? By Wednesday morning, it was so much more than that. It had an impact on the pennant races in the NL. More than that, it defined this Washington Nationals’ team, which might end up being more resilient than any of its predecessors.
Go to bed after the Nats fell behind 10-4 headed into the bottom of the ninth? Understandable, even reasonable. There were plenty of reasons for frustration at that point.
But after Kurt Suzuki’s inexplicable, three-run, walk-off home run capped an insane comeback and provided an 11-10 victory over the New York Mets, there are plenty of things we learned about this team and this race. Let’s go through five of them:
1) This was one of the best regular season wins in Nationals’ history: Comb through the records, and what compares? I’ll start with June 2006, when RFK Stadium was packed with 45,157 fans — and Ryan Zimmerman flipped a game in the bottom of the ninth with a two-run homer off the Yankees’ Chien-Ming Wang on Father’s Day. I’d skip ahead to April 2015, when the NL East favorites had lost 13 of their first 20 games and trailed the Braves 9-1 after two innings, yet scratched back and beat Atlanta 13-12 on Dan Uggla’s three-run homer in the ninth.
Those are just two of the candidates, and they’re legitimate. But neither of those two teams amounted to anything. These Nationals who overcame a six-run, ninth-inning deficit Tuesday night are chugging toward the playoffs. The victory preserved a six-game lead in the NL wild-card race, and it kept the Nats within 6-1/2 games of the Braves — keeping alive the idea that the four-game series that begins Thursday in Atlanta might matter.
Other ideas for best Nats’ win? I’m listening. But this is hard to beat.
2) This finished the Mets: Had New York hung on Tuesday, it would have been poised for a sweep in Wednesday afternoon’s finale. The Mets were 11-6 against Washington this season, and were a threat to put doubt in the minds of the Nats.
Instead, the doubt is in Queens. Mets closer Edwin Diaz — who coughed up not only Suzuki’s homer, but Zimmerman’s run-scoring double before that — has now allowed earned runs in seven of his past 15 outings, and he’ll bear the brunt of the criticism even as the game should have been over long before he arrived. Manager Mickey Callaway’s days would seem to be numbered. And the Mets are not only 8-1/2 games back of the Nats for that first wild-card spot, but are five back of the Cubs to make the playoffs, with Arizona, Milwaukee and Philadelphia in between them and the second spot. This was a devastating blow to a team already on the edge.
3) Davey Martinez’s message might matter. Look, I was first in line to kill the Nationals manager in the midst of a 19-31 start. I didn’t like his strategy. I didn’t like his bullpen usage. I didn’t like his message, which was positivity in the face of it all — at the expense, I believed, of realism.
But you can’t deny that since the nadir at the end of a four-game sweep against the Mets in New York, the Nats are 59-28, an incredible 110-win pace. Martinez has been at the helm for all of it, and his steady idea — win the day in front of you, win the inning you’re playing now, finish 27 outs — might just mean something. The Nats flipped a near-certain loss into a win last Friday against the Marlins on Anthony Rendon’s walk-off hit. But Tuesday was more than that. Tuesday was a pass-the-baton classic in which six straight Nats reached against the Mets’ bullpen in the ninth, capped by Suzuki. Kill Martinez for the bad start? Sure. It would then be unfair not to recognize that his keep-your-chin-up approach may have benefited his club for the long haul.
4) They got away with some stuff: When Scherzer departed after six innings, he trailed only 4-2. But it could have been closer had Matt Adams, running from first, not badly misread a fly ball from Suzuki — a ball that should have been a double — and instead tried to tag up when he should have been at third. Brutal.
The deficit became 5-2 when lefty Roenis Elias allowed Jeff McNeil’s homer in the seventh. Juan Soto’s two-run homer made it 5-4 headed to the ninth, but Elias coughed up Brandon Nimmo’s homer to lead off the final inning. Throw in a dropped foul pop that either Adams or Suzuki could have caught near the dugout, and it was clear the Nationals didn’t deserve to win this game.
Worse than any of it, though, was shortstop Trea Turner. With the score 6-4 in the ninth, Daniel Hudson relieved Elias with no one out and a runner on first. After a lineout, Hudson was in position to get out of the inning when Mets catcher Tomas Nido hit a perfect double-play ball to Turner. Except Turner thought there were two outs, not one, and instead of throwing to Asdrubal Cabrera to get the force at second — and start a double play — he threw to first to retire Nido. No big deal? It was huge. Instead of the inning being over, McNeil then singled to drive in a run and Pete Alonso hit a three-run bomb that made it 10-4.
Great win. But a lot to clean up for the Nats going forward.
5) What if Ryan Zimmerman is a threat?:
Of all of Zimmerman’s 15 seasons here — dating back to the inaugural year of 2005 — this has to be the most frustrating, with the veteran headed for a career-low in games played. But in the month he will turn 35, Zimmerman feels like his body is in the best shape it has been in — minus the plantar fasciitis in his foot that put him on the shelf for all but 30-something games.
Zimmerman, though, has always been able to get hot in a hurry. His first start back from the injured list Sunday featured an absolutely melted home run deep to left, as well as two other hard-hit balls. And then, as a pinch hitter in the ninth Tuesday, he scorched a run-scoring double to right.
If — and it’s a big if — Zimmerman is a threat headed into October, then the Nats’ offense looks as it was constructed to look: with a right-left-right balance of Turner-Adam Eaton-Anthony Rendon-Soto-Zimmerman at the top. More than that, it would give them two of the most professional late-inning at-bats off the bench imaginable in Adams from the left side and Howie Kendrick from the right. A devastating lineup may have just received a boost.
I could go on with lessons learned Tuesday night, including that other teams have bullpen problems just as bad as the Nats. But maybe, at this point, it’s best to pick up on Martinez’s message. As fans clamored from outside his postgame press conference, the manager said plainly: “Go home. We got a game tomorrow.”
With this group, maybe more than any other in Nats’ history, that’s a game they think they can win. Tuesday night shows something beyond the numbers. This could be a special group playing in a special month — and beyond.
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