Instead, they beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 9-7 in 11 innings, after Castro nudged them ahead and Josh Harrison stretched it with a sacrifice fly. Their record, 25-33, means they need a lot more where that came from. But for Wednesday alone, they avoided a fourth straight loss and earned a series split with the front-running Rays.
If it wasn’t the much-discussed hit, it still mattered. And if it was, if all that was bundled into a double off Diego Castillo’s first-pitch sinker, the Nationals need to start building on it soon.
“We’ll see tomorrow when we get home at five in the morning,” Manager Dave Martinez said, laughing, when asked if this victory could turn the Nationals in a better direction. “But it was a huge win.”
“We’re not panicking or anything,” Castro added. “We sometimes feel a little bad because we’re too good to [play] how we’ve been playing.”
It was a long and winding path to the 11th inning. The Nationals leaped in front on Juan Soto’s two-run homer off Rays starter Shane McClanahan in the first. But the Rays flipped the scoreboard in the bottom half, using Patrick Corbin’s lack of command. The left-hander walked the first three batters he faced, and they each scored. Ryan Zimmerman then tied it with a solo homer in the third, then pushed the Nationals ahead 5-3 with a two-run shot off reliever Jeffrey Springs in the fifth.
From there, Corbin completed five innings and was hooked for Kyle Finnegan, who pitched a one-two-three sixth before Taylor Walls took him deep in the seventh. Finnegan was relieved by Daniel Hudson, who finished the seventh before Joey Wendle crushed his hanging slider out to right to tie the score in the eighth. And Hudson was relieved by Brad Hand, who escaped the ninth, stranding two runners, before the Rays beat him for two runs in the 10th.
While that all happened, the Nationals went on a 2-for-21 drought against the Rays’ bullpen. It included 11 strikeouts. But they rallied in the 10th, scoring a pair of runs on Yan Gomes’s bloop single and a sacrifice fly by Kyle Schwarber. Martinez pushed Hand past 20 pitches, asking for six outs and a save. Hand, though, was tagged by Randy Arozarena’s leadoff triple in the 10th, bringing in the automatic runner. Then Arozarena skipped home on Wendle’s RBI single to right.
Three times Wednesday, Martinez pushed a reliever into a second inning and paid for it. Hudson hadn’t pitched since June 4, and he tied his season high with 31 pitches. Neither had Hand, and he logged a season high with 44. Will Harris will be sidelined for a while after undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, and his absence was apparent. Tanner Rainey has been a shaky late-inning option, leading Martinez to squeeze 11 outs from Hudson and Hand.
“When you think about it, I know we got Max [Scherzer] tomorrow. We tried to stay away from some guys who have been pitching a lot,” Martinez said, explaining why he leaned heavily on Hudson and Hand ahead of a series opener with the San Francisco Giants in Washington on Thursday night. “[Sam] Clay was three out of our. [Wander] Suero has been pitching a lot. Those guys are going to step it up, but hopefully Max gives us a good seven innings.”
Rainey was called on for a critical part of the victory. First, though, came Castro and the hit.
The veteran third baseman has struggled for most of this season, entering with a .606 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 233 plate appearances. At his best, he has used a reliable glove to shift the focus away from his offense. At his worst, he has put a hole in the middle of Washington’s order. He has had trouble elevating his contact. He has been buried in a pile of hard and soft groundballs.
So his double off Castillo, the Rays’ dominant closer, was a complete aberration from the rest of his year. It rocketed over left field and landed a few feet short of a two-run homer. But because Castro chugged to second, and because he was moved to third on a bunt single by Victor Robles, Harrison was able to get him in on a sacrifice fly to right.
“He might want to jump and throw a strike right away, because he might want me to hit a groundball to third, [so] that I can’t move the runner to third,” Castro said of his approach with Castillo. “That’s why I go up there ready to hit and see a pitch up that I can drive.”
The Nationals’ dugout, the same dugout that had wilted with each bullpen collapse, was then the loudest crevice of the building. It was filled with high-fives for Castro, for Harrison, then for Rainey, who entered for the 11th, walked the leadoff batter and stranded two runners by striking out Austin Meadows, the Rays’ hottest hitter, with a high slider. That was the final pitch of a 4-hour 19-minute slog that, for the Nationals, turned out okay.
They got that hit they needed from an unlikely source. Now they’ll start their hunt for the next one.