Nationals Park wanted Anthony Rendon. The third baseman’s lead-seizing, bases-unloading, thunder-clapping swing in the sixth inning had just jolted the baseball into the left field seats and the fans to their feet. They had cheered his play plenty of times in this ballpark, including this summer’s occasional urgings for the Washington Nationals to sign the impending free agent to a contract extension: “Lock him up!” This one felt a little different.
After dancing the Dougie in his teammates’ home run line, Rendon appeared on the top step of the dugout. The 29-year-old believes, as much as any player in the Nationals clubhouse, that his baseball talent doesn’t make him special. After the game, he said he didn’t feel pressure when he came up with the bases loaded and two outs because, “I have a good understanding that baseball is not the most important thing in the world.” But he spent a second in the spotlight and tipped his cap after the grand slam that ultimately secured his team’s 6-3 victory Monday night over the Atlanta Braves.
“Ahh,” Rendon said when asked about curtain calls. “It’s cool. It’s something for the fans. I’m very appreciative.”
On a day when ace Max Scherzer hit the injured list for the second time this month, on another day without a much-needed addition to the bullpen, Rendon’s blast provided a momentary exhale. Manager Dave Martinez called it “a wow moment.”
“It’s really not just this season, it’s every year,” he said. “Even when I was on the other side, just watching him play, you don’t see a whole lot of emotion from him. He just makes everything look rather easy.”
Later, closer Sean Doolittle appeared after four days off with a four-run lead in the ninth. He allowed a solo home run with one out, but that a Nationals reliever needed to pitch to avoid too much rest, that the other two relievers who entered — Fernando Rodney and Wander Suero — faced only seven Braves in two innings, that Rendon’s heroics proved enough, all showed that games can sometimes go right. The Nationals pulled themselves to within 4½ games of the National League East lead.
This series, against the first-place Braves, was a reminder that there are parts of a 162-game season that become more critical.
That’s easy to forget when you’re worrying about the lineup every night, when you’re slogging through rain and doubleheaders, when you’re puzzling over the corresponding move to call up another player. But here these teams were, to finish off July, with less than 48 hours until Wednesday’s trade deadline, and Martinez could recall the changed feeling from his playing days.
“This is where you want to be,” he said. “You just think about . . . going to spring training, getting yourself ready for the season, and then start playing games. And then, all of a sudden, you’re in the race.”
On the mound, Nationals starter Patrick Corbin and Braves starter Dallas Keuchel looked as though they would highlight the opener. The veteran southpaws were both signed to beat pitchers such as each other and put their respective teams over the top for the NL East crown. Yet they largely canceled each other out, with Keuchel’s sluggish start almost erased by Corbin’s eroding command as he finished.
Corbin dominated early. He did not allow a hit until the fourth, by which time the Nationals had built a 2-0 lead by scoring runners who had reached on a hit by pitch and a walk.
His first time through the Braves’ lineup, Corbin used all of his pitches to keep hitters off balance. The second time, he relied heavily on his slider, one of baseball’s best pitches. He threw it short, almost in front of home plate, to minimize mistakes against a dangerous lineup. The effectiveness allowed Corbin to freeze some hitters inside with fastballs, and he appreciated the significance of his best stuff coming on this night.
“You want to face these guys. We’re chasing them,” Corbin said. “They’ve had a great season so far. But we feel we’re just as good as them.”
Later in the fourth, Atlanta’s Adam Duvall smashed a rocket down the third base line. It looked like a surefire double, but Rendon’s glove moved stage right to snare it. He overthrew first base and allowed the Braves’ first run to score, but Martinez still praised the play.
“Even though he threw the ball high, it was unbelievable,” Martinez said. “I don’t think too many people make that [stop].”
The third time through, Corbin started missing the zone, and suddenly second baseman Brian Dozier’s second defensive miscue of the night put a runner on third with one out in the sixth. A sacrifice fly tied the score.
Whereas Corbin limited the damage, Keuchel departed with his outing in question. He had two runners on base in the sixth when his manager called on the bullpen. Then Chad Sobotka threw a 2-0 fastball over the middle of the plate that Rendon didn’t miss.
Two innings later, the veteran came to the plate with the four-run lead he established still intact. A few fans stood and applauded. His teammates were less impressed.
“Psh,” Juan Soto said with a grin when asked about the grand slam. “That’s the Tony I know.”