The focus in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse Wednesday morning again was not on the game they were about to play. They had smashed the New York Mets to pieces less than 12 hours earlier, a blowout featuring all sorts of franchise records, but another cloud, the latest in a 72-hour storm front, was hanging over the locker that Shawn Kelley had occupied for 2½ seasons.
Kelley wasn’t there anymore. His nameplate had been removed. His presence was erased and replaced by Jimmy Cordero because Kelley had spiked his glove and glared into the Nationals’ dugout out of frustration after allowing a home run in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s rout. General Manager Mike Rizzo designated Kelley for assignment a few hours later after trading Brandon Kintzler, whom the Nationals believed was a malcontent. Rizzo acted swiftly and defiantly.
Unlike Tuesday night’s thrashing, Wednesday’s 5-3 matinee win over the Mets did not end on a sour note. It was as routine as a journeyman outdueling a bona fide ace gets. The Nationals pounced on Noah Syndergaard early, watched Tommy Milone sparkle over seven innings and added insurance in their last at-bats to give the new-look bullpen some breathing room. They’re back over .500 at 54-53 and stand five games out of first place in the National League East.
A two-game sample size regularly proves to be fool’s good, but it’s a start for a stubborn club seeking to turn the corner down the stretch.
“It’s going to take a village, and they know that,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “This is a pivotal time of year.”
The Nationals didn’t unload another batch of fireworks following Tuesday’s historic showing, but they jumped out front on Syndergaard when Bryce Harper’s single up the middle in the first inning scored Trea Turner, who had stolen the first of his two bases to get in scoring position. Harper finished 2 for 4 and with a .226 batting average — the highest that stat has been since the middle of June.
“He’s playing the way he’s capable of playing,” Martinez said. “He’s really doing well. And it really started in Miami [over the weekend] — using the whole field, not trying to do too much. And I told him, ‘Just play the game.’ He’s hustling everywhere. If he continues to do that, we’re going to have a lot of fun.”
In the third inning, Anthony Rendon extended the Nationals’ lead to 3-0 with a two-run homer, his 16th of the season. Meanwhile, the 31-year-old Milone, a Mets castoff filling in for the injured Stephen Strasburg for a second time, was silencing the anemic New York lineup. The left-hander compiled six strikeouts through three innings. He kept the Mets scoreless until the fifth, when Jose Reyes, who had made his pitching debut the previous night, socked a solo home run. The homer was Reyes’s first since April 29 and his second this season, matching the total he allowed on the mound Tuesday.
After pitching to an 8.56 ERA in 11 appearances for the Mets last season, Milone limited his former team to the one run across seven innings Wednesday. He compiled nine strikeouts, his most since 2013 and one short of his career high, and he didn’t walk a batter.
“You know what? Milone made some pretty good pitches,” Mets Manager Mickey Callaway said. “Now, we probably should’ve been able to challenge him a little bit better, but he had a pretty nice change-up working. He elevated the fastball well, kind of went north and south on us and executed his pitches. It’d be nice to put a little more pressure on him than we did.”
The 97-pitch outing, which followed Tanner Roark’s strong start (one run in seven innings) Tuesday, extended the recent success of the Nationals’ rotation: Over the past week, Washington’s starters have the best ERA in the National League. It’s a tiny sample size, but it’s encouraging. The Nationals are a dangerous team when their starting rotation is good. They’re bad when it’s not. This season is evidence.
Milone has contributed by allowing four runs in two starts across 12 innings during his second career stint with Washington. The games have been against the Miami Marlins and the Mets, the NL East’s bottom feeders, but Nationals starters not named Max Scherzer spent the previous two-plus months regularly tripping over teams all across the spectrum.
“It’s huge. That’s exactly the spot you want to be in, really,” Milone said. “I’m excited to be here. I’m happy I’m getting this opportunity.”
Milone’s performance was necessary because Syndergaard settled in. Making his first start since he came off the disabled list following a bout with hand, foot and mouth disease, Syndergaard retired 12 straight batters after Rendon’s home run. He then surrendered a leadoff single to Daniel Murphy in the seventh but escaped unscathed.
Syndergaard’s effort kept it a two-run game, a lead that Reyes halved with an eighth-inning solo home run off Ryan Madson for his 11th career multihomer game. Suddenly, the Nationals’ bullpen was in a high-pressure spot for the first time without closer Sean Doolittle and Kintzler. Madson did not yield another run, though, and Washington tacked on two to pad the cushion for Kelvin Herrera to handle the ninth.
The Nationals needed the extra leeway when Herrera allowed a Wilmer Flores flyball to the warning track that a leaping Juan Soto knocked over the wall for a solo home run. Herrera then surrendered a double to Michael Conforto and walked Jose Bautista before getting Brandon Nimmo to ground into a game-ending double play. It wasn’t easy, but Herrera didn’t slam his glove, and the Nationals won again, this time without a bitter finish.