That really happened at Nationals Park on Wednesday. There is a box score and video to prove it. The Nationals still have something to play for in the twilight of this regular season, one that culminated in a postseason clinch Tuesday. They are locked into a spot in that wild-card game, so there’s no more uncertainty there, but there’s a chance they would have to travel for that game instead of host it. The Milwaukee Brewers remain just a game behind them. The St. Louis Cardinals, just 1 ½ games ahead of the Brewers in the NL Central, are also in the mix.
But Washington kept its slim advantage with a fourth straight victory over the Phillies. Difo’s RBI single nudged it across the finish line. The shortstop, filling in for a resting Trea Turner, spent most of his season in the minors and hadn’t started in the majors since May 16. The go-ahead rally in the seventh was set up by seven strong innings from Aníbal Sánchez. He gave up two runs and struck out seven. The Nationals tacked on two insurance runs in the eighth. Sean Doolittle finished it with his first save since Aug. 16.
It all helped them take a game they could have easily slept through.
“We talk about that all year long, about utilizing every guy you have on the roster,” Manager Dave Martinez said of Difo. “That’s a perfect example of him just being ready to play when he’s called upon.”
The Nationals’ clubhouse still smelled like alcohol while players trickled in for another day of work. The party lasted there until near midnight Tuesday, leaving no one dry, before it moved to a bar on the Southeast Waterfront. Martinez was already handing out days off before his players left — “There was no fight, I can tell you that,” he joked — and that was reflected in a makeshift lineup.
Anthony Rendon sat after starting 123 straight games since coming off the injured list May 7. Turner sat after starting 114 straight games since coming off the IL on May 17. Brian Dozier went viral during the clinching celebration, dancing shirtless to “Calma,” singing every word while he was drenched in beer. Now he was playing second and batting leadoff. Difo was holding two champagne bottles at once, his eyes covered by goggles, his hair dripping with some mix of something or other. Now he was at shortstop and hitting eighth.
And Sánchez, 35 years young, led a conga line while blowing a whistle while making it fair to wonder what other props were on the horizon. Now Washington needed him to start and ease some strain from a tired bullpen. The balance for Martinez is to rest regulars while aiming for home-field advantage. If the Nationals and Brewers finish with the same record, a very real possibility, the game would be played in Milwaukee because the Brewers won the season series. Same goes if the Cardinals and Nationals wind up in a tie.
“That game’s such a coin flip,” Doolittle said Tuesday afternoon. “Obviously we would want it at home because I think logistically it would be a heck of a lot easier. We finish the season at home, we have a day off, and then we play that game rather than trying to fly somewhere.”
But the importance of home field depends on whom you ask.
“I don’t really care because I think we’ve lost three Game 5s here,” said Turner, referring to postseason exits in 2012, 2016 and 2017. “Not to say it’s anybody’s fault or . . . whatever you want to say. But I think, in my opinion, you have to beat somebody on the road in the postseason to accomplish your goal.”
Sánchez did his part early, retiring nine of the first 10 batters he faced, reaching for six different pitches to do so. But the Nationals’ offense looked like it didn’t get much sleep. Phillies starter Drew Smyly carried a 6.44 ERA into the game. He didn’t allow a run or hit until the fourth, but then both came at once on Howie Kendrick’s solo homer with two outs.
Smyly finished with 10 strikeouts, his most since August 2016, and Sánchez was matching him until the seventh. Brad Miller got all of a Sánchez curveball for his third homer in the past two days, and that left the Nationals down a run.
But Washington went ahead once Smyly was lifted. He was chased out by Asdrúbal Cabrera’s one-out single in the seventh. Yan Gomes followed with a double off reliever Mike Morin, continuing a hot streak, and a run soon came in on Victor Robles’s sacrifice fly. Then Difo punched that single to put the Nationals ahead for good — just like they drew it up.
“I’ve been telling these guys, NLCS last year, I was with the Dodgers facing the Brewers and that’s the most electric stadium I’ve ever been a part of in my whole career,” said Dozier, who homered in the eighth, then ended the night by lending a little more weight to Washington’s win.