For the Nationals, the win completed a successful slog through three rain delays, two rainouts and one doubleheader. They only played three of the series’ four scheduled games. They weathered their ace breaking his nose and starting anyway Wednesday, as well as intermittent downpours Thursday. Despite all of it, the series couldn’t have gone better.
The Nationals (36-38) pulled off their first three-game sweep of the season, improved to 12-5 in June and narrowed the gap between them and the National League East-leading Atlanta to 7 ½ games. The Nationals are playing their best baseball with Atlanta coming to town for three games this weekend.
“We've been together all year, but this is gratifying to see,” said Manager Dave Martinez when asked if a series like this could galvanize his team. “The way we played …” He paused. “We made some great plays on defense. We really did. We're playing really good baseball all the way around: big hits when we need them, our bullpen's stepped up, starting pitching's been good. … This is what we anticipated from the get-go.”
The Nationals offense compensated for the bullpen in the sixth, when it created enough separation to last. Anthony Rendon led off the inning with his 17th home run for a 4-3 lead and Victor Robles added a three-run shot, his 11th, for the decisive blast.
“He's in his legs a little more, he's getting ready on time,” Martinez said about his outfielder’s adjustments at the plate. “Those are the two big things that I see.”
Nationals fans delighted in little as much as the misfortune their team inflicted on the Phillies (39-35) and Bryce Harper. The division rivalry had the fans howling all night, but they cranked up the volume for the once-beloved outfielder. In the first, Harper’s former Las Vegas High School teammate Erick Fedde struck him out. In the third, he caught the inning-ending lineout and pretended he’d throw the ball in the stands but instead tucked it in his glove and ran to the dugout. In the fourth, he scampered toward the plate with the Phillies’ tying run but right-fielder Adam Eaton threw him out with a perfect throw. In the sixth, he swung through a 58-foot change-up from Javy Guerra to strike out again.
After the leadoff strikeout, Fedde struggled for a second straight start. Last week, he allowed five runs in six innings to the Arizona Diamondbacks and, on Thursday, he lasted only 3 ⅔ innings while yielding five hits, five walks and, due to superlative defense from shortstop Trea Turner, only two runs. He threw 84 pitches, 43 for strikes.
“At the moment, I don’t really have any answers,” the right-hander said. “That was a little bit embarrassing. I guess [I] go back to the drawing board tomorrow.”
The Nationals, really, had lucked into the lead. In the first, Juan Soto broke the seal when he slapped a 96-mph four-seamer the other way and Jay Bruce somehow completely missed it in left field. The ball skidded by him and to the wall while Rendon scored and Soto scooted into second. (The B-side of this play, though: Bruce’s throw in sailed away from the shortstop and trickled onto the infield grass. Soto, sensing opportunity, broke for third. Phillies starter Nick Pivetta picked up the ball and threw him out.)
Catcher Kurt Suzuki augmented the lead in the second. His smoked two-run homer to left gave the Nationals a 3-0 lead until Fedde’s command issues finally caught up with him and forced him out of the game in the fourth.
“When [Fedde] was doing really good, he threw the ball, got back on the mound, threw it,” Martinez said of his starter’s struggles. “Today, it seemed he took an extra breath, walked around, so we're going to talk to him a little bit about his tempo and [pitching coach] Paul [Menhart] found out some things that he's going to work with him and get him back on track. When your mechanics are a little off, you tend to do something else to correct it. And sometimes that's not the best.”
When the right-hander departed, with the bases loaded and two outs, the bullpen faced its toughest challenge since it transformed into one of the league’s better units over the past month. It needed to protect a two-run lead for 5 ⅓ innings. It failed, sort of.
Matt Grace entered and the first batter the left-hander faced, Bruce, hit a rocket to right. One run scored but Eaton, from right, cut down Harper at the plate. Jean Segura, the second batter of the next inning, compensated by walloping a middle-middle sinker into the left-field seats to bring the game level.
Two innings later, Bruce snuck a flyball over the field in right off Tanner Rainey for a solo home run. But, by that time, the Nationals’ offensive explosion had provided them a comfortable enough cushion to minimize any anxiety.
“We’ve won in many different ways lately, that's what good teams do,” Turner said. “We have a deep enough lineup and roster to kind of do that.”
This week, the Nationals proved they could beat up on the ailing Phillies. This weekend comes the question of whether they can hang with one of the hottest teams in baseball.