Nationals' joy is Phillies' misery to start final week


WASHINGTON -- Hanging around became a noisy proposition Tuesday night around 9:30 p.m. The Nationals’ dugout was quiet when Philadelphia’s closer, Brandon Workman, jogged toward the mound. A slogging bottom of the eighth provided the desperate Phillies a one-run lead. The second game of a doubleheader almost always goes to the loser of the first. Despite the Phillies perpetually flammable bullpen, odds shifted to them with Workman on the mound and a Game 1 loss in their pocket.

They also did not have to deal with Juan Soto in extra innings. He was pitched around to leadoff the seventh inning. The bottom of the eight -- also known as extra innings in 2020 --  began with Luis García on second base and Eric Thames at the plate. Thames struck out. Up came Yadiel Hernández.

Hernández is 32 years old. He made his major-league debut Sept. 10. The Nationals summoned him from the alternate training site partly as a reward, partly as a necessity. Hernández was the organization’s minor-league player of the year in 2019. When asked why Hernández was called up, Mike Rizzo said if the organization didn’t bring up players after a season like he had for Triple-A Fresno (a 1.009 OPS), what kind of message would that send?

So, Hernández was at the plate Tuesday night with a runner on second and his team down two. He fouled back a 93-mph 2-0 fastball, tapping his bat in frustration afterward. A 90-mph cutter followed, well inside and off the plate, and Hernández clubbed it into the Nationals’ bullpen. He flipped his bat then joyfully trotted around the bases because of his first career home run.


“He was happy as can be,” Davey Martinez said. “The celebration wasn’t what it typically is, but the boys were jacked up.”

The Nationals are 23-32 after 5-1 and 7-6 wins Tuesday. Their exceptionally unlikely playoff hopes survived another night because of the doubleheader sweep against Philadelphia. The Phillies are on the edge of the final postseason spot in the National League. They lost the first game despite ace Aaron Nola pitching against the Nationals’ fifth starter Austin Voth. They lost the second game despite trying to wade through it with their bullpen against Paulo Espino, a 33-year-old veteran called up to make his third career major-league start and Nationals debut. Their fan base is fuming.

Yan Gomes was asked over the weekend about being a “spoiler” the rest of the way. He laughed when hearing the term. The Nationals are the defending World Series champions who have spent the 2020 season piling up injuries and losses. Their current four-game winning streak is their longest of the season. If they are not spoilers, they are significant pests, at the moment, for a National League East Division opponent. And, if anything has become clear in the last three days, it’s that the expanded postseason is going to be a watered-down product flooded by several undeserving teams. The Phillies will be an example of that point should they stumble in before Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Nationals persist with their feel-good story of the evening. Hernández blinked back tears when talking with reporters after the game. His elation was apparent on the field and again afterward. Hernández was sent back to Fredericksburg with an 0-for-7 on his major-league ledger, a stomach gouge after all these years of waiting for his debut, following his first call-up. He knew little time remained in the season, which made him figure his chance to return was slim. Adam Eaton’s broken finger provided a second chance. Martinez’s willingness to put Hernández back on the field delivered the next step. Paying attention led to Tuesday’s walk-off.

Hernández has no personal log against the pitchers he is facing. So, he is left to decipher from the on-deck circle, searching for patterns, indicators or preferences. He saw those from Workman when Thames struck out. Workman threw Thames a common combination for right-handed pitchers against left-handed batters: fastballs and cutters inside. The first pitch to Hernández was a fastball, the second a cutter, the third a fastball. Hernández anticipated a cutter next. Voilà.

“In reality, it never crossed my mind I was going to end the game that way,” Hernández said through interpreter Octavio Martinez.

Hernández went into Davey Martinez’s office after the game to thank him for another chance. The Nationals nudged aside official elimination for another day. A fun story was born. A quiet night became boisterous while a rival slinked away. A final chance to annoy the Phillies arrives Wednesday.