Patrick Corbin gave up just two unearned runs in six innings. The offense, revved by Howie Kendrick in the early innings and boosted by two RBI singles from Victor Robles, tacked on three insurance runs in the last two frames. That followed Rodney retiring the heart of the Cardinals’ order in the seventh, and then Hudson recorded the team’s first save since Aug. 16. The buttons were pressed by bench coach Chip Hale, in his second game filling in for Manager Dave Martinez, who remains in Washington after undergoing a cardiac procedure Monday. And, in a twist, a good process met a good result.
“Try to ride the hot hands,” Hudson said of what the bullpen expects down the stretch. “And get these W’s, because we really need them right now with this wild-card race getting so tight.”
The Nationals’ urgency has wavered throughout the past 5½ months. When they were 19-31 in mid-May, and it looked like the year might be a total wash, it felt like they had to win every game. In some ways, that was true. But once they got healthy and rebounded, and they started playing like one of baseball’s best clubs, winning became the unlikely expectation. The pressure to do so was gone. It was replaced by a lot of dancing in the dugout.
Yet now the stakes are hiked way back up. On Sept. 2, the Nationals had a sturdy, seven-game lead to play in the wild-card game. Even after Tuesday’s victory, things remain tight. The Cubs fell to the Cincinnati Reds to drop 1½ back, and the Brewers are tied with Chicago after beating the San Diego Padres. So if there was ever a time to be urgent, to admit that some contests may really matter more than others, it is right now.
“The best thing to do is just worry about today,” said Hale, who was both filling in for and sounding very much like Martinez. “Worry about the next pitch and just try to win each pitch and win each game. If you start going, ‘Whoa, if we lose this game and they win then dot dot dot.”
The audible dot dot dot came with Hale shaking his head and waving his hands in the air. The dot dot dot is what Washington wants to avoid. The dot dot dot is everything that could happen: losing the wild-card lead, running away with it, playing in a tiebreaker Sept. 30, missing the playoffs entirely, winning every remaining game, losing every remaining game — you name it. It’s easy to get caught nose-deep in scenarios at this time of year. It’s easy, then, for doubt to set in. But the Nationals’ simple cure, maybe the only cure, is to win and let the rest shake out.
Their latest attempt at that began with Corbin fooling St. Louis with his slider. That helped him finish with 11 strikeouts, tying a season high, and limit damage despite four walks. He only gave up those two unearned runs in six innings, because of errors by shortstop Trea Turner and catcher Yan Gomes, but the offense was up to erasing them throughout the evening.
Kendrick was the first to get it going against Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas. He hit a triple in the second, missing a home run by a few feet, and scored on Asdrúbal Cabrera’s sacrifice fly. Then he got all of a Mikolas curveball in the fourth for his 16th home run. Robles ripped two RBI singles, in the sixth and eighth, to stretch the lead. Juan Soto added a sacrifice fly to score Turner in the ninth. And, all the while, Rodney and Hudson were up for recording the final nine outs.
“Pretty much every inning we were thinking about the next one,” Hale said of deciding to push Hudson for two frames, made possible because he needed just 11 pitches in the eighth. “The word of the night was reconvene. [Pitching coach] Paul [Menhart] kept saying, ‘We’ll reconvene when the inning ends.’ ”
Hours before the game, in the dead of a lazy afternoon, the Nationals’ clubhouse was filled with Bob Marley’s greatest hits. The last song to play was “Three Little Birds” — among Marley’s most famous, mostly for the reminder to “Don’t worry about a thing . . . ’cause every little thing is gonna be all right.” After it ended, and the speakers stopped offering music, Rodney and fellow reliever Wander Suero stood by the showers and offered their own version. Rodney sang those famous two lines in his deep voice. Suero did the same, his range an octave higher, and punctuated it with what sounded like a laugh.
The Nationals’ bullpen hasn’t had much to joke about this season. But here, in a tired metaphor, were off-key reminders that Washington still has the benefit of the next game, and the one after that, and then 10 more before the regular season closes. The relievers were a reason, along with Corbin and the timely offense, that the Nationals still held a slight advantage in the wild-card hunt. They were a reason to put off worrying about the dot dot dot — at least for another day.