MINNEAPOLIS — The Washington Nationals’ bullpen stirred into motion in the sixth inning Wednesday night, and it didn’t stop moving until it had recorded the final nine outs of a needed win.
The relievers, all wearing red sweatshirts until their names were called, huddled on a small wooden bench by the door to the field. Then one by one they stood up, braved the late-summer chill in Minneapolis and, across three scoreless innings, helped the Nationals to a 6-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.
Wander Suero, Sean Doolittle, Fernando Rodney and Daniel Hudson combined to finish off the first-place Twins and keep Washington at least 2½ games up on the Chicago Cubs for the National League’s top wild-card spot. Stephen Strasburg, without his best command, battled through six innings and gave up two runs. The offense, having slumped for most of the past week, was keyed by three hits each from Howie Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman. Kendrick, 36, drove in one run and scored another. Zimmerman, 34, blasted a two-run homer in the third inning. Trea Turner added a solo shot in the ninth.
The Cubs were starting a game with the Padres in San Diego when Hudson recorded the final out for Washington. The Milwaukee Brewers — right behind the Cubs, sneaking up on the Nationals — kept pace with a win over the Miami Marlins. That all made the Nationals’ win — and their bullpen effort — a necessary change of pace.
“The bullpen knows what’s going on with the situation,” Rodney said. “The type of team we face right now, the [Twins], they want to win the division. And we’re trying to get into the first wild card or second wild card. Whatever.”
Washington had lost five of six games heading into Wednesday, and the race is tightening around it, but there is no tangible uneasiness around the team. Baseball players are conditioned to ride the wave, to block out other teams’ results, to approach each day with nothing but tunnel vision. They live by cliches such as, “One game at a time” and, “We’ll get them tomorrow.” And some even believe them.
The Nationals do know where they stand in the postseason hunt. But here is what the clubhouse looked like before their second of three games against the Twins: Gerardo Parra napped face down on a brown leather couch. Patrick Corbin, lying on the couch across from him, scrolled through his iPhone. Victor Robles picked through a box of dominoes. Aníbal Sánchez and Asdrúbal Cabrera laughed while playing cards. MLB Network played on TVs and through wall-mounted speakers — “The Brewers’ schedule may just be easy enough for them to catch the Nationals,” one of its announcers was saying — but it only washed over players like white noise.
“I don’t look at the standings, and you know why?” Martinez said a few hours before first pitch, pausing for effect as he leaned forward in his desk chair. “Because everybody tells me!”
It is unavoidable this time of year. So all Martinez can do — and all his club can do — is prepare for the next chance to pad a slight lead. The offense, shut out by the Twins on Tuesday, was at it right away against Minnesota starter Martín Pérez. Adam Eaton hit a one-out double in the first, Anthony Rendon followed with a walk, and Juan Soto scored Eaton with a seeing-eye single into center.
Zimmerman added a second run in that inning when he bounced a hit into center. Then his two-run shot in the third gave the Nationals all the offense they would need.
“If you give them a cushion, they know how to use it,” Zimmerman said of scoring early for the pitching staff. “That’s definitely to our advantage, and we try to do it every night. It just doesn’t work out that well sometimes.”
When the Nationals trailed 2-0 on Tuesday and were still within striking distance, Martinez opted for Tanner Rainey instead of his usual high-leverage options. Rainey was charged with three runs to take Washington out of the game. Martinez later explained that he wanted to save Suero, Hudson, Hunter Strickland, Doolittle and Rodney for when the Nationals held a lead. Then, just about 24 hours later, Strasburg was finished after six, and Martinez began rolling those relievers onto the field.
Suero got the first two outs of the seventh before giving up a single. Martinez called on Doolittle, his closer turned lefty specialist of the moment, and Doolittle got Luis Arráez to line out to left. Rodney put two runners on in the eighth, bringing the tying run to the plate with no outs, but got two flyouts and a popout. Hudson had the ninth after Turner stretched the lead and navigated around a pair of two-out hits to secure the win.
It couldn’t have passed as the cleanest exit. But all that mattered is that it worked.