September 12, 2018 at 12:58 AM
PHILADELPHIA —Eight and a half hours after their baseball day officially began, far more than that after they arrived at Citizens Bank Park, the Washington Nationals once again demonstrated that whatever the standings say, whatever outsiders think about the state of their clubhouse, whatever speculation lingers about their management, they cannot be accused of giving up.
After taking the first game of Tuesday night’s doubleheader, 3-1, the Nationals rallied from a three-run deficit in the top of the ninth to tie a game the Phillies needed far more than they did. Eventually they won, 7-6, after Juan Soto hit his second homer of the game to break a tie in the tenth.
Tuesday’s sweep stalled the Phillies’ last-ditch effort to challenge the Braves in the National League East. The Nationals are 1 ½ games behind the Phillies for second in the division and back over .500, whatever silver lining that provides. They have swept back-to-back doubleheaders, the ultimate sign of major league stamina.
“They don’t quit. They keep playing. They play hard,” said Manager Dave Martinez, who had to battle as well, having received acupuncture before the doubleheader because his back was hurting so bad he could hardly turn his neck. “The boys just battled in at-bats, one after another. It’s a beautiful thing.”
The Nationals lost Sunday’s game to rain, Monday’s to soggy field conditions, and seemed likely to lose at least one game Tuesday to weather, too. The threat of rain lingered over the good-enough playing surface and mostly empty ballpark, which was so quiet that the radio broadcast, played over speakers in the concourses, echoed over the field for the entire first game. But the rain never came, the first break the weather has given the Nationals in some time.
Adam Eaton, who walked during that ninth inning rally, was on first when Trea Turner drew the game-tying walk, and his face bore scrapes and cuts. The soggy infield dirt that cost these teams their game Monday night and forced the Nationals into their second doubleheader in four days of rain-soaked stopping and starting tripped him up as he slid into second base early in Game 2. Those scrapes, etched on the face of one of this team’s most vocal leaders, embodied the state of this team — beaten, but not broken, whatever disappointed fans or pundits want to believe.
Spencer Kieboom was toothless when he sparked a victory in the first game, though that was less of a badge of honor. Kieboom lost a veneer to a baguette Tuesday morning, and his first career home run followed. Causation is hard to prove, and correlation is complicated, but he had never played toothless in the big leagues before, and had never homered either.
Kieboom helped Erick Fedde navigate the best start of his major league career — 5 ⅔ scoreless innings and a career-high nine strikeouts. Kieboom has been waiting for chances like these, and that first big league homer. In the fifth inning Tuesday, his first day in the big leagues without that veneer, Kieboom broke through with a low line drive out over the right field wall. Long days and long nights, rain and heat and muddy fields test morale. Moments like those serve as reminders of what can happen when consistency outlasts frustration.
“It’s really a great group of guys,” Kieboom said. “You never know what the end of the season holds in store, but regardless, next year will be unbelievable.”
Soto has been as consistent as any National this season, and threatened to take over the second game. He doubled home Anthony Rendon in the second inning, then hit a two-run homer in the fourth, swings that moved him into a tie for seventh on the all-time teenage RBI list with Ken Griffey Jr., with plenty of time left to pass him, too. He is now tied for third all-time in homers for a teenager, trailing Tony Conigliaro and Bryce Harper, and tied with Mel Ott.
Tanner Roark could not hold the lead Soto gave him. He surrendered five runs on seven hits in a fifth inning rally that stirred memories of his early season struggles. He has allowed 11 runs in his last 9 ⅔ innings over his last two starts. But down three runs in the ninth, his teammates staged a comeback that included hits from Matt Wieters and Andrew Stevenson and a game-tying walk drawn by Turner.
“Who cares what I did today,” Roark said afterward, genuinely jubilant at the days’ events. “We won.”
Soto pushed them ahead again. He finished 3 for 4 with a walk and four RBI. He is the first teenager in baseball history to accumulate three multihomer games.
“It’s good for this year and next year,” said Soto, the only National to insist he hasn’t really been tired at all this week. “We have the confidence to come back and never give up, keep fighting until it’s final.”
In Eaton’s scraped up face, the product of a slide on the rain-soaked infield dirt that went awry in Game 2, one can see one of this team’s most vocal leaders refusing to let up. With another ninth-inning rally, the offense reiterated its unwillingness to concede. With Greg Holland striking out the side before agreeing to appear to close out the second and throwing 46 pitches in the process, one can see quite clearly that Nationals young and old have refused to succumb to apathy.
“We’ve had a tough stretch with our schedule and guys keep showing up to play, and I think that’s a testament to the mentality and work ethic of all the guys in here,” Holland said. “I enjoy the heck out of that, and I enjoy being on a team that shows up each and every day.”
Whatever consolation it provides, the Nationals are not falling apart. They are not rolling over. And they not pulling their hair out, disposable though their teeth seem to be.