This time, though, the beeps rang through the large, oval room before the final game of the regular season. The Nationals’ finale against the Cleveland Indians meant nothing; they weren’t playing for anything for the first time since spring training. They had secured their postseason spot early last week and home-field advantage in Tuesday’s National League wild-card game the night before.
“We can all sit here and say, hey, it was ugly in the beginning,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “But they stepped up and endured a lot, and [now] we’re going to the postseason.”
The Nationals later won Sunday’s game, 8-2, behind six strong innings from Joe Ross and a well-rounded offense. The team workshopped postseason strategy — five stolen bases, a parade of pinch hitters — but looked laid-back throughout. After an abysmal start, a months-long slog back and a topsy-turvy final month, they embraced a moment of respite. Martinez started five regulars and joked about how he had constructed his lineup: “Closed my eyes. Wrote names down.” Don’t get it twisted, though; the manager later stressed to his players to take their at-bats seriously.
The most intriguing puzzle piece, the Nationals’ wild-card game opponent, finally fell into place later in the afternoon. The Milwaukee Brewers booked a trip to Washington after the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Cubs in Chicago and captured the NL Central crown. This gave the Nationals clarity they have lacked for weeks and allowed the team to focus. The Brewers use relievers frequently, but Martinez demurred when asked whether it would mean he would stack his 25-man wild-card game roster with batters off the bench.
“We don’t pinch-hit much,” the manager said. “These guys hit pretty much righties, lefties. So we just have to have a pinch hitter for the pitchers. That’s about it. With that being said, we’ll see how things line up.”
The game’s lack of stakes allowed the Nationals to use it as a sandbox. The regulars, Adam Eaton and Trea Turner, played several innings and departed. Two veteran role players, Matt Adams and Brian Dozier, started for tuneup innings. Two situational options for the wild-card game, Andrew Stevenson and Michael A. Taylor, subbed in for the same reason (Taylor later swiped two bags). Ryan Zimmerman and Parra honed their pinch-hit routines. Victor Robles returned from two days off with an illness. Every pitcher who could be important Tuesday rested.
Kurt Suzuki missed three weeks with right elbow inflammation, but the catcher started for the second time in three days. He homered to left in the third inning in what ultimately gave the Nationals the lead for good. His arm wasn’t tested, but he joked last week it hardly mattered; his performance this season — he caught five of 50 would-be base-stealers — proved it. He left after the fourth inning with a strong case to start Tuesday.
“Suzuki was the big question mark, whether he could catch,” Martinez said of what he looked at down the stretch. “The last two days, he proved he was good to go.”
Juan Soto emerged from his September slump in his first at-bat and blasted a run-scoring double off the scoreboard in right field. He came into the game 12 for his previous 72, and though Soto has said his first full major league season is the most he has played in his life, Martinez expressed confidence in his young star. The manager said the 20-year-old hasn’t pulled open out of his swing as much in the past few days.
“He’s back and ready to go,” Martinez said. “He’s going to hit fourth for us Tuesday, and hopefully he’s going to get the opportunity to drive in runs.”
Aaron Barrett returned to the mound at Nationals Park for the first time since Aug. 5, 2015. The veteran right-hander was once a linchpin in the Nationals’ bullpen, but then his arm got sore and he couldn’t feel his fingers. He underwent Tommy John surgery and, in rehab, snapped his arm while pitching. One teammate said it sounded as if someone kicked in a piece of plywood. He spent two years out of baseball, two more climbing back through the minor leagues and, after an intensive regiment this season with the Class AA Harrisburg Senators, made it back to the big leagues.
Barrett climbed back onto the last mound he had been on in a previous life and, though the return didn’t go exactly as he wanted — two hits, one walk, one run allowed — he had done it. He walked off the field in tears to a standing ovation from the crowd and his teammates.
“I felt [the fans’] energy and the amount of support that I’ve had from them,” he said of the fans. “That was really cool.”
The clubhouse afterward was relaxed. There were no beeps. And now that the race was over, Martinez and his players could admit they wanted the home-field advantage. They had maintained all week they would like to stay in Washington but it wasn’t imperative. Martinez acknowledged the little things do help, and though he wasn’t stress-free — there was still a playoff roster to finalize, still an opponent to game-plan for — it helped that he wasn’t also rushing for the airport. He would end the day by having dinner with his sons, who are in town.
“I hardly ever sleep,” Martinez said. “But yeah, what I really like about today is I get to go home.”