Nationals starter Aníbal Sánchez didn’t have his best stuff. He gave up four runs, three of them earned, in five innings, but the offense covered for him. Wander Suero allowed two inherited runners to score after Sánchez exited in the sixth. Then Tanner Rainey came in and wiggled away from additional danger, and the Marlins’ bats went quiet from there.
Three homers accounted for five of the Nationals’ six runs. The victory, Washington’s 14th in 17 meetings vs. Miami, kept the Nationals a game up on the Milwaukee Brewers for the National League’s top wild-card spot. The Chicago Cubs dropped two behind the Brewers with another loss. The Nationals have 10 games remaining in a stretch of nine days and have a firmer road to the postseason.
“All games right now are really tough for us,” Sánchez said. “It’s not time for mistakes. It’s not time for taking any game for granted. We need to play harder than normal. Always in baseball, it’s not how you start. It’s how you finish. And we need to finish really, really strong.”
Washington’s day started with a welcome dose of familiarity. As players trickled into the clubhouse and turned two corners on the way to their lockers, Dave Martinez’s voice could be heard in the manager’s office. Martinez missed the past three games after undergoing a cardiac catheterization in Washington on Monday. Doctors decided on the procedure, used to assess a heart’s condition, after Martinez felt chest pains during Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Braves. Test results came back negative, Martinez was cleared to travel, and by Friday afternoon he was hugging players and making up for lost time.
Martinez gripped the back of a black leather couch while his relievers came over to greet him. He didn’t stop grinning while they did. Being away “stunk,” he expressed later, but it gave him a chance to review his players’ individual seasons and plan for what lies ahead. It also made it nearly impossible to ignore the standings, a topic Martinez likes to avoid at all costs.
“I didn’t have to look. I heard it,” Martinez said with a laugh. “Now you hear it every day, you know? It’s 24/7 every day. You can’t go on Google without it popping up. But it’s fun. We’re playing for something.”
The Cubs have been chasing the Nationals for weeks now, eyeing the front of the wild-card race, even after they slipped behind the Brewers on Thursday night. But a small skid has given Washington a bit of breathing room. The Nationals finished their previous game at 3:11 p.m. in St. Louis on Wednesday. They began their series opener with the Marlins at 7:11 p.m. Friday. In that span, exactly 52 hours, the Cubs suffered three losses while the Nationals rested. It was a rare break in what has been a hectic September. And it helped Washington put three full games between making the postseason and missing it altogether.
The Nationals started that process once Turner popped that solo homer with two outs in the third. It was Washington’s 216th of the season, a franchise record, and came off a full-count fastball from Marlins starter Robert Dugger. But the Marlins got that run right back in the bottom half. Sánchez yielded a leadoff double to Austin Dean, balked Dean to third and, with one out, gave up an RBI single to Jon Berti.
But the Nationals soon broke Dugger down. Cabrera came up with two on and one out in the fourth. Then he hunted a first-pitch fastball and punched it over the fence in right-center. That gave him 33 RBI in 30 games since joining the Nationals in early August. That created enough separation for the Nationals to grab a victory, regardless of Sánchez and Suero’s mistakes in the sixth, rounded out by three scoreless innings from Fernando Rodney and Daniel Hudson out of the bullpen. Hudson finished it with his second six-out save in four days.
“They’re all pretty much must-win,” Hudson said. “They have been for a while.”
The Nationals arrived in Miami having lost 10 of 16 games. That invited the Brewers into their personal space. That gave the Cubs a chance to get there, too. But playing the Marlins, now a 100-loss team, was always going to be a chance to get on track. They were the first team Washington beat when it turned its season around in late May. And here they were again, at the end of a rebuilding season, the perfect match for a Nationals team that needs every win it can get.