NEW YORK — The Washington Nationals scored their first run Sunday afternoon on a softly hit groundball off Juan Soto’s bat. New York Mets first baseman Jay Bruce corralled the chopper and considered throwing home to nab Trea Turner, but he didn’t have time. So he flipped the ball to Steven Matz as the pitcher ran to cover first base. Turner scored and pumped his fist as he jogged to the Nationals’ dugout.
Giving the Nationals a lead en route to a 15-0 win didn’t spark Turner’s celebration. He was celebrating because the run snapped the Nationals’ latest perplexing development — a scoreless innings streak that had somehow reached 32. That it ended minutes before the Nationals tallied 14 runs in the final two innings was fitting for a club that spent the previous 3 1/2 games unable to push anything across, wasting opportunity after opportunity, wondering how it was possible for a team with its talent to languish for so long.
“I ran back into the dugout, and I said, ‘We did it, boys!’ ” Turner said. “At that point, you’ve kind of got to make a little bit of a joke out of it. It’s just nice to get on the board.”
The Nationals (65-66) quickly — and out of nowhere — turned the afternoon into a shellacking, but Soto’s RBI — Washington’s first run since Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off home run Wednesday night — would have been enough to snap a three-game losing streak as Jefry Rodriguez and four relievers held the Mets scoreless. But not everything went the Nationals’ way Sunday.
Pitching the ninth inning despite a 15-run lead because he hadn’t appeared in a game since Tuesday, Nationals closer Kelvin Herrera pulled up lame while running to first base after fielding a groundball. Herrera hopped on his right leg for the final few steps to record the inning’s second out and dropped to the ground in pain. He stayed there for a few minutes and was carted off, dampening the afternoon for the visitors. After the game, Manager Dave Martinez ruled out an Achilles’ injury and said the injury was to Herrera’s left foot. X-rays were negative, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, but Herrera will undergo tests Monday to determine whether he has any ligament damage.
“It killed the buzz,” a dejected Martinez said.
Rodriguez delivered the best start of his young major league career, logging six scoreless innings on 97 pitches and mixing in his change-up effectively. He walked four and posted just three strikeouts, but he smoothly worked out of jams to pitch into the sixth inning for the first time as a major leaguer. It was in the sixth when Rodriguez chose to make things tougher for himself.
After securing an out to begin the inning, Rodriguez threw a first-pitch fastball behind Todd Frazier. His intent was unmistakable. A day earlier, Frazier had been chirping at Adam Eaton after Eaton was hit by a pitch in his first start against New York since his slide broke Mets infielder Phillip Evans’s leg on Aug. 1. The Nationals believed the Mets (58-72) threw at Eaton on purpose, but Martinez insisted he would never instruct a pitcher to throw at someone.
Rodriguez did anyway, though the pitch didn’t hit Frazier and Rodriguez didn’t try to plunk him again. Instead, Frazier, after staring down Rodriguez, worked a walk and stared him down again on his jog to first base. Rodriguez induced a couple of groundballs to escape his self-created predicament.
“We thought about maybe taking him out [before the sixth], and I said, ‘You know what? I want to see what he does. I want to see how he reacts,’ ” Martinez said. “He gave us six strong innings. I was very impressed and very happy. He’s good, and he’s learning. He’s going to be really good.”
The Nationals’ offense came alive in the eighth, beginning with Eaton’s infield single. Turner followed with a walk before Anthony Rendon blooped a single. Soto then walked with the bases loaded to drive in his second run. Michael A. Taylor was due up next, but Martinez chose to pinch-hit Bryce Harper for Taylor, who was 4 for his past 35 with 16 strikeouts.
Harper wasn’t in the Nationals’ starting lineup after spending the previous week battling an illness that had worsened over the past three days. But he was well enough for a cameo and smacked a 1-1 slider off Paul Sewald down the first base line to clear the bases. Wilmer Difo and Eaton each added two-run home runs before the Nationals made the third out.
“I suck at [pinch-hitting],” Harper said. “If I’m not going to play, I’d rather not play. But [it was] a big spot to be able to get some runs right there, and I got an opportunity and made the most of it.”
The eight-run onslaught, which came before Mark Reynolds punctuated a six-run ninth with a grand slam, matched the number of runs the Nationals have given up in the past four games combined. But Washington is 1-3 in that stretch, one that has forced them to face an inconceivable reality. The calendar is a few days from flipping to September, and their playoff hopes are on life support. They finished Sunday 8½ games out of first place.
“I tell them we got five weeks of fury,” Martinez said before Sunday’s win. “That’s what I’m calling it. Go out there and play hard. Anything can happen. Just go out there and play hard.”
For 32 innings, fury yielded zero runs and only more frustration. But the Nationals scored plenty Sunday. It was a moment to celebrate. They haven’t enjoyed many this season, and even Sunday’s celebration was spoiled before it was over.