Every game matters to the Washington Nationals now, which simplifies their day-to-day operations. They do not need to consider who to save for later. They do not need to worry about keeping anyone healthy for the playoffs, just about getting there. This team began Saturday trailing by 5 1/2 games in the National League East, a deficit that grows every day that it does not shrink.
So as the Nationals braced themselves for a day-night doubleheader — the first of two doubleheaders and five games they were scheduled to play in the next four days — they hoped for better than a split.
They got one anyway, losing, 7-1, in the first game against the Cincinnati Reds before winning, 6-2, in the second. Bryce Harper left the second game after being hit with a pitch in the shin. He tried to play the field and couldn’t.
“It hurts,” Harper said. “I’ll see where I’m at [Sunday] and go from there.”
Assuming that pitch did not render Harper unavailable long-term — and Manager Dave Martinez did not expect him to need X-rays or an MRI exam — the Nationals will look back at Saturday’s split as a tolerable outcome. But they did not gain ground in the division and in fact lost a half-game to the first-place Philadelphia Phillies. If anything sums up the position in which they have put themselves, it is that a grueling day like this that ends in a solid all-around win like theirs only maintains their uncomfortable status quo.
The scene in the purportedly messy, tumultuous, paranoid Nationals clubhouse before the games consisted of Gio Gonzalez sitting at his locker with a bat in his hands while Tanner Roark and Stephen Strasburg commented on his ability to use it. Players wandered in and out, some more sleepily than others, none in any particular hurry. Doubleheader days are long, and baseball players are masters of energy efficiency.
Strike-throwing efficiency has never been Gonzalez’s strength, and he struggled with it in various ways in the first game Saturday. At first he struggled to get ahead of hitters, then he struggled to put them away. The Nationals trailed 4-0 before the end of the second inning. He allowed six runs on 10 hits and walked two, his struggles with command more evident in the hit total than the walks. Gonzalez had lasted at least five innings in his past five starts.
“It’s weird how it’s working. When you fall behind on guys, you aren’t supposed to be lasting too long. When you get ahead of guys, you aren’t supposed to be out of the game so early,” Gonzalez said. “For me, it’s hit or miss right now. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
This rotation has stabilized itself lately, so much so that it pitched to the best ERA in the National League over the past week. Jeremy Hellickson was trying to restore its equilibrium in the second game after Gonzalez’s struggles, but Jose Peraza undermined those efforts by homering on the second pitch Hellickson threw.
The trouble with falling behind like that in the second game of a doubleheader is that whatever urgency this team has now, it still cannot afford to play Daniel Murphy and Adam Eaton two games in one day. Both are just regaining their form after substantial leg injuries, and both sat for the second game after the offense was hapless even with their services in the first.
But Michael A. Taylor, playing because Eaton wasn’t, bunted for a base hit in the second inning in his first start in five days. After Hellickson bunted Taylor to second, Murphy’s replacement, Wilmer Difo, singled Taylor home to give the Nationals a lead. They continued to add a run per inning until the fifth, when they added two. Only one of their six runs came via a homer. Most of them came with clutch hitting, two two-out RBI hits from Difo and three hits from Anthony Rendon. Matt Adams hit his 18th homer of the year.
For the fourth time in five games, the Nationals scored at least five runs. For the fourth time in five games, their starter kept them in the game. Hellickson allowed two runs on four hits in 5⅔ innings before he was pulled to avoid disaster in his third time through the order.
But even as the Nationals added runs and Hellickson and their bullpen prevented them, a win in the second game did not come tension-free. So few Nationals wins have come that way this season. Harper was hit by reliever Austin Brice, and Spencer Kieboom was hit by reliever Jesus Reyes. But Martinez said he did not think either was intentional. Brice apologized to Harper after the inning.
“No hard feelings toward him at all,” Harper said. “Just got away from him.”
But when Ryan Madson hit Joey Votto, the Reds’ equivalent of Harper, in the eighth, circumstances argued against coincidence. Madson hit Votto with a fastball in the meaty part of the leg with two outs and no one on, a combination Votto thought betrayed Madson’s intentions. Votto hollered at Madson on the way to first, then at the Nationals’ dugout after the inning. Votto did not address reporters after the game.
“I didn’t mean to hit him,” Madson said. “I hope he’s okay.”
Adams, who heard most of Votto’s rant while standing next to him at first base, wouldn’t disclose anything about it after the game. Tensions nearly bubbled over into more than hoots and hollers, and the Nationals seemed determined to prevent escalation. Who knows what a brawl could have done to their roster, which is only just coalescing into its intended form.
In that late-inning situation, as with Harper’s leg — as with the team’s day as a whole — the Nationals could certainly have hoped for better results. But, at least in the immediate aftermath, it seems they are very lucky things did not go worse.
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