PHILADELPHIA -- Clubhouse and equipment manager Mike Wallace tried to coax chunks of cabbage into a dustpan with a broom not long before midnight Tuesday. A vacuum seemed a more suitable mechanism to pick up the strewn cabbage. But there was a problem with that idea.
“Too wet,” Wallace said.
So, he continued around the room, sweeping bit by bit, pulling in pieces of an early April celebration following the Nationals’ rally for a 6-5 win against the Phillies.
Wallace’s clean up duties came just 10 games into the season and on a Tuesday -- abnormal grounds for such elation. The yell heard from within the clubhouse shortly after the game -- audible in the outer hallway through closed double doors -- countered the date. It also told of the vegetable’s fate, spiked into the clubhouse carpet as a celebratory ode to a spring training cabbage race which produced the same exultant response.
“We passed the cabbage around,” manager Davey Martinez said. “The boys like their cabbage.”
Tuesday was different. The Nationals trailed 6-1 following a poor start from Stephen Strasburg. Just four innings for him, steering Martinez into the pothole-filled bullpen, lining up a likely second loss in Philadelphia and extracting any chance to win the series. Washington was on a path to a 4-6 record, Philadelphia a jump to 8-2 and a quick four-game lead over the Nationals. Even with a win, Washington would finish the night ahead of only the woebegone Miami Marlins in the National League East -- and by just 1 ½ games if it lost. It’s always early until it’s not.
Martinez is living a different life in his second season. His 2018 body of work provided baselines to grouse about. When new, no track record exists for reference. Year 2 comes with narratives and beliefs about what a manager can and can’t do. Sticking to Martinez like wet cabbage to carpet is the idea his bullpen management is suspect.
Everything he did Tuesday worked. Joe Ross for two clean innings. Matt Grace for two clean innings. Yan Gomes hit a two-run homer to bring them a little closer while the bullpen held. Martinez sent Howie Kendrick to hit in the seventh, he homered, the first pinch-hit homer of his career. Now, a one-run game existed because the bullpen went from arsonists to extinguishers for a night.
And, the final blows, a ninth-inning home run from 21-year-old Victor Robles and 10th-inning parabola from 20-year-old Juan Soto that went over the foul pole, dropped the future in front of everyone. Robles was just worried about reaching base with the team down one and just an out remaining to work with. Soto was swinging for revenge. His home run sailed over Bryce Harper’s head, hooking hard past the stands where they now cheer Harper following a bow and fist pump. Harper was asked repeatedly postgame about his view of the home run. His responses were terse, the joy of all his pregame hi-jinks stripped by Soto’s shot over his legendary hair, his homer off Strasburg long forgotten.
The result just made Soto smile. He recalled a week to the day prior, when Harper reclaimed Nationals Park and left-handed Jose Alvarez struck Soto out looking on a 3-2 fastball. Soto did not wait Tuesday. The second pitch from Alvarez was a meager 89-mph fastball at the top of the strike zone; an error Soto seized on.
“They try to throw me everything away, away, away, and wait for my pitch, wait for the miss, they going to miss one time,” Soto said. “If they miss it, they pay."
Not everyone was happy. “Juan, you suck!” chants kicked up in the bottom of the 10th. Washington led by four runs after scoring nine unanswered. Citizens Bank Park was emptying. The sounds couldn’t be missed, though they didn’t bother Soto.
"Yeah, I hear all the stuff, but I don't pay attention,” Soto said. “They keep say it and I just laugh at it."
Most projected the NL East to be a season-long rope burn for the participants. Two weeks in, that idea has proven true thanks to broad talent and quivering bullpens. The Phillies have the best offense, the Nationals the best rotation, the Braves the best young talent, the Mets a fighting chance. No one is perfect. No one flawed to the level of uncompetitive. Which is why these nights feel different and beg a question: Is this really April?
“I think we’re seeing how evenly matched these teams are in the NL East and what kind of summer it’s going to be,” Sean Doolittle said. “Each win feels maybe a little more important than in years past. There is a little bit more of a sense of urgency and a little bit more energy to early season games.”
The music boomed afterward. Soto and Robles lauded each other, a scene expected for years to come. Doolittle took a chance to joke about his rare plate appearance, a three-fastball, swing-free strikeout. “I was looking slider,” he said.
This pile of events Tuesday -- beleaguered bullpen working, comeback against the Phillies, trying to stay afloat in spite of themselves -- led to the uncommon early season postgame joy. Once most of the cabbage made its way to the trash and players to the bus, a symbol of the night rested quietly on Martinez’s office desk: A bottle of red wine next to a half-filled glass.
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