The Nationals snuffed out the Phillies’ season three days ago and claimed another Friday night by clubbing their way to an 8-2 victory. Asdrúbal Cabrera’s two-run double and Trea Turner’s two-run homer in the pivotal sixth inning secured the victory and, with the Tampa Bay Rays’ win, the Indians’ elimination.
The Nationals, meanwhile, captured their sixth win in five days to extend their wild-card lead to two games over the Milwaukee Brewers, who lost on the road to the Colorado Rockies. Washington also leads the St. Louis Cardinals, who lost to the Chicago Cubs, by one game, and it can clinch home-field advantage in the wild-card game with one more win.
Manager Dave Martinez said he was proud of his team for playing as hard as it has after clinching.
“It’s what I always talk about: I want to keep these guys motivated. I want to keep them going,” he said. “I want all these guys to get their at-bats and just keep playing good baseball.”
This sudden dip in pressure does not change the Nationals’ plans. They wanted to use this last weekend to rest regulars and experiment as they did in the opener anyway. Martinez sees this weekend as a chance to rev up those who haven’t played regularly, such as Brian Dozier, Ryan Zimmerman, Matt Adams and Gerardo Parra. He wanted Cabrera to pinch-hit. He wanted Howie Kendrick at second base as a tuneup (and a potential playoff preview). Kendrick has a .410 batting average in September, the best mark in baseball, and they want to keep him in the lineup.
The Nationals also sat everyday center fielder Victor Robles for then-slumping Parra; checked in on young starter Austin Voth, who could be a bullpen arm in the playoffs; and evaluated Kurt Suzuki, who returned to catch his first game since Sept. 7, when he departed a game because of right elbow inflammation.
Of these four, Suzuki’s status is the most pressing. Martinez announced Friday that Max Scherzer will start Tuesday’s wild-card game, and the Nationals ace swears by Suzuki. Scherzer has praised the veteran backstop’s game-calling ability, and the numbers support him: Scherzer has a 2.08 ERA in 99⅔ innings with Suzuki and a 4.09 ERA in 72 2/3 innings with Yan Gomes.
“Felt good,” Suzuki said. “Felt like, obviously, energetic in the first couple and then tried to get my legs under me from not being out there on the field.”
Hitting is not a problem for Suzuki. He pinch-hit twice during his injury layoff, and he rapped a sharp single to left in his first at-bat Friday. Suzuki’s legs don’t appear to be bothering him, either; he scored from first twice, and though his slides looked like pratfalls, he dusted himself off unscathed. The thing that has held him out of games — his throwing arm — wasn’t tested.
“I threw around between innings; just getting it there is always a step forward in the process,” he said. “Obviously would’ve liked to throw down hard with somebody stealing, but I don’t think I need to.”
That was mostly because of Voth, who was perfect in five of his six innings, only running into trouble in the third when he allowed two runs on an infield single, a double and a sacrifice fly. The 27-year-old otherwise showed why Martinez speaks highly of him, and he impressed by throwing 11 of his 18 curveballs for strikes, a sign of progress after a cut on his middle finger limited the effectiveness of those pitches in his previous start.
The Nationals like Voth’s stuff, which he showed in his previous outing with one swing-and-miss every four pitches. He didn’t post the same rate this time, one every 7.3 pitches, but the Indians swung early and often. Voth seems unlikely to make the wild-card game roster — the regular relievers plus starters in the bullpen render him superfluous — but he’s a candidate to pitch if they advance to the best-of-five NL Division Series.
“Exactly how I wanted to finish the season,” Voth said, smiling. He added, of his season possibly continuing: “It’s exciting.”
The Nationals continued to show they can compete without their regular lineup, and Parra highlighted that with three hits Friday, one shy of his total since Aug. 13 entering the game. The legend of “Baby Shark” had grown even as his on-field performance slipped, with Nationals Park serenading each of his infrequent at-bats with arm-chomps. But the veteran utility outfielder rebounded in a big way, driving in the Nationals’ first two runs with a deep double in the second inning, singling in the fourth and homering in the eighth. He also had a sacrifice fly in the sixth. Martinez credited the turnaround to Parra keeping his bat in the strike zone longer.
“I want to get him going because he’s going to have a big at-bat in this postseason,” Martinez said. “I know he will.”
The Nationals used none of the relievers Martinez intimated he would want in the wild-card game — Fernando Rodney, Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle — and Kendrick concluded a solid night of defense by handling a soft grounder for the second out in the ninth. When Tanner Rainey struck out the final batter, Suzuki didn’t have to throw the ball back to him. He walked it there instead.
Read more on the Washington Nationals: