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Nationals end trip on high note with ninth-inning heroics in Seattle

Mariners right fielder Mitch Haniger is unable to haul in Ildemaro Vargas's ninth-inning home run that was the difference in the Nationals' 3-1 win at Seattle. (Stephen Brashear/AP)

SEATTLE — The score was tied until Mitch Haniger ran out of room in right-center, forcing him to stop short of the wall and watch Ildemaro Vargas’s go-ahead homer sneak beyond it. The two-run shot, off a 1-2 fastball from Paul Sewald in the ninth, put the Washington Nationals up for good in a 3-1 win at T-Mobile Park on Wednesday.

It was an unlikely source of power, late innings or otherwise. But it was just enough to complement another strong showing from Washington’s pitching staff.

“This whole road trip they were outstanding, really,” Manager Dave Martinez said of his arms, which helped the team to a 3-3 run through San Diego and Seattle. “From the starters to the relievers, they pitched really well. … We got to make some more opportunities to try to drive in runs.”

Start to finish, the finale was a full-on pitchers’ duel. Mariners right-hander George Kirby began his outing with 24 consecutive strikes. Within those pitches, he yielded five singles and the Nationals’ only run off him, courtesy of Nelson Cruz’s RBI single in the first. When Kirby exited after seven, he had struck out nine and been matched by Aníbal Sánchez, Hunter Harvey and Victor Arano.

Sánchez, 38, blanked Seattle for 4⅓ innings and threw 81 pitches. Over his past two outings, he has pitched 9⅓ frames, yielding three hits and four walks while striking out six. Behind him Wednesday, Harvey stranded an inherited runner on third, pumping 100-mph fastballs to strike out back-to-back hitters. Arano followed and recorded four outs without a hitch. Then Carl Edwards Jr. entered and almost recorded four outs, too, trying to bridge the lead to Kyle Finnegan. Then Edwards made a critical mistake to Julio Rodríguez.

Before the hanging curveball, Rodríguez was 0 for 7 with four strikeouts in the two-game series. Then that 0-1 curveball landed well beyond the left-center wall at T-Mobile Park. That put Rodríguez, a 21-year-old star, in the 20-20 club with 20 homers and 20 steals. He became the 12th rookie in history to accomplish the feat.

But Vargas and Finnegan had the last word. Vargas’s homer was the second of a fairly productive road swing for the 31-year-old utility man. And Finnegan, having helped Edwards out of the eighth, continued to be Washington’s most reliable arm. To cap this one, though, he allowed a double and a walk and weathered Cal Raleigh lining the final out to the warning track in center.

Updates on the Nationals’ sale process? David Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group and chairman of the Kennedy Center, is joining forces with Ted Leonsis to bid on the Nationals, according to a person familiar with the situation. Leonsis announced Tuesday that he had acquired full ownership of NBC Sports Washington, the network that broadcasts games played by two of his other assets: the Capitals and Wizards.

Together, he and Rubenstein have the most local ties of any of the handful of serious bidders who have confirmed their sincerity by signing nondisclosure agreements and looking through the team’s financial records. Other confirmed suitors include South Korean billionaire Michael B. Kim and Stanley Middleman, who previously pursued a purchase of the Cleveland Guardians.

What stands out with the 2023 schedule release? Washington will open the season against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park on March 30. And with Major League Baseball’s new scheduling format — 15 games with each divisional opponent instead of 19, at least one matchup with every club — the Nationals will travel to play the Los Angeles Angels, Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals, Houston Astros, Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles (as always). The rest of the American League teams will visit D.C.

Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.

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