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Nats win marathon in dramatic fashion

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Nats win marathon in dramatic fashion

In a marathon ballgame that featured plenty of young players in Nationals uniforms experiencing pennant race baseball for the first time in their lives, who would have thought the winning run would wind up scoring because of a brain cramp by the Braves' three-time All-Star and seven-year veteran?

Maybe there truly is something special about the 2012 Nationals, who kept trying to find ways to lose Monday night's showdown with Atlanta yet managed to hang around long enough to watch Dan Uggla butcher Chad Tracy's sharp grounder in the bottom of the 13th, allowing Danny Espinosa to slide across the plate with the run that gave the home team a thrilling 5-4 victory in the most significant game in the club's brief history.

"We're very young," manager Davey Johnson said. "This is great. This is the learning curve. This is experience."

The opener of a three-game series that could see the Nationals all but bury the Braves in the division race -- or allow their lone remaining competitor to close the gap -- turned into an epic battle deep into the night.

By the time Espinosa slid across the plate at 12:28 a.m., much of what had transpired up to that point -- a 56-minute rain delay, a 4-run first inning for the Nationals, a ragged start for Jordan Zimmermann, countless missed opportunities for both teams to win -- felt like ancient history.

All that seemed to matter was the fact the Nationals found some way to emerge victorious, and in the process ascend to 30 games over .500 for the first time while also extending their lead over Atlanta to six games with 40 to play.

"This was almost like a playoff atmosphere," Tracy said. "These are the type of teams you're going to be playing. Why not prepare for them now?"

If anything, the less-experienced Nationals played much of the night like a team that hasn't been in this position before.

Zimmermann, the majors' ERA leader at the start of the night, labored through five innings, throwing 102 pitches and giving up four runs.

"I was terrible," the right-hander said.

Shortstop Ian Desmond dropped a pair of routine throws that could have proved costly but ultimately didn't factor into the outcome.

After pouncing on Tim Hudson for four runs in the bottom of the first, the Nationals' lineup was stone-cold silent over the next 11 innings, totaling six hits (and zero runs) until the final rally in the 13th.

And a bullpen that was completely maxed out put runners in scoring position in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and 11th innings yet managed somehow not to let any of them score.

"A lot of us have never played in an important baseball game since college or high school or maybe the minor leagues," said Craig Stammen, the last of seven Nationals relievers to appear in the game. "So I think it's important to get a little nervous or anxious, a little more adrenaline going on. I think it's definitely important to play games like that."

It helps, though, when you go on to win, which the Nationals did in bizarre fashion.

With one out and a man on first, catcher Kurt Suzuki tapped a high chopper over the mound and toward the left side of the infield. By the time Chipper Jones wound up fielding the ball, Suzuki was able to leg out the single. More importantly, Espinosa (who had been breaking off first base on the pitch) noticed nobody covering third base and thus raced all the way around without drawing a throw.

"I saw everyone kind of break for the ball," Espinosa said. "And once I saw everybody break, I hit second and I saw that there was no one at third. I just kept going."

With the winning run now 90 feet away and only one out on the board, the Braves were forced to bring their infield in with Tracy at the plate.

Though the veteran was the logical choice to pinch-hit for Stammen in that spot, his use would have forced the Nationals into turning to an unlikely pitcher for the 14th inning: Edwin Jackson, who two days ago threw 103 pitches during a seven-inning start. Jackson was scheduled to throw his between-starts bullpen session on Tuesday, so Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty asked if he'd be willing to pitch a couple of innings of relief in this game instead.

"I wasn't doing it for heroism," Jackson said. "But the bullpen was done. It was a game that we could possibly win. It's definitely a game where they don't want to throw position players. It's not a giveaway game. So I guess I was the next best option to legitimately have a chance to win."

Turned out Jackson's services were never needed, though when Tracy drilled Cristhian Martinez's pitch into the ground on the right side of the infield, it appeared for a moment like the Braves might escape the jam.

Uggla had to go down to a knee to get the ball hit just to his left, but he appeared to have time to throw to the plate and retire Espinosa, who was running on contact. But the veteran second baseman froze, thinking he might have a better shot at a double play that would end the inning.

Just one problem: Suzuki, the runner on first base, made a heads-up move to freeze and not give Uggla an easy opportunity to tag him and then toss to first base for the double play. Confounded, Uggla bobbled the ball and watched as it fell harmlessly to the ground without him ever making a throw or tagging anyone.

"I was going over pretty much every situation that might or could happen," he said. "I was like, if he hits a ball to my left, or hits a ball hard right at me, I can just tag Kurt and touch first and we can be out of it. He hit me a tough groundball that I had to drop to my knees to catch, and I didn't exactly know where Kurt was. Once I got up and I just tried to throw the ball home, I couldn't get the thing out of my glove."

As Espinosa slid in safely and Tracy crossed first base, the ball remained sitting in the infield grass. What remained of a small-yet-boisterous crowd of 21,298 let out one final roar, then headed for the exits knowing Washington's baseball team had just reached new heights in most stunning fashion.

Thirty games over .500. Six games up in the division. Ten games up in the wild-card race.

All thanks to a wild finish to the most important ballgame this town had hosted in a long time.

"That's the way to set the tone for the series," Tracy said. "We would have liked to have been out of here in nine innings. But, hey, we'll take the win."

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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

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USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

ST. LOUIS -- Koda Glover rewarded his manager's faith.

Bryce Harper had three hits and drove in three runs, Glover earned the save in the first opportunity since Ryan Madson was placed on the disabled list, and the Washington Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night.

The Nationals won for just the third time in their last 10 games and snapped the Cardinals' season-high, eight-game winning streak.

"We needed a win today," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "Get on that plane, have a nice happy flight and come back tomorrow and be at home and be ready."

Tanner Roark (8-12) gave up four runs, three earned, in six innings.

A beleaguered bullpen that had blown two leads to start the losing streak took care of the rest. Justin Miller pitched two scoreless innings before Glover closed it out.

"There's been a lot of changes (in the bullpen)," Miller said. "It's unfortunate, a couple of injuries and stuff like that, but I don't really look at it as I've got the seventh or eighth or anything like that. I'm just going out there just trying to do my job."

Glover took the loss in the series opener on Monday, giving up a game-ending homer to Paul DeJong.

"The first game of the series didn't go as I would have liked for it to have went," Glover said. "So to get put back in that situation or even a better situation to get a save, I'm happy with that outcome."

Harper drove in the game's first run with a double in the first and knocked in two more with a bases-loaded single in the fourth to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead.

A pair of errors helped the Nationals extend their lead to 5-1 in the fifth. St. Louis committed three errors in the game after committing just four total errors during the winning streak.

"A couple plays clearly we expect to make and will make and just didn't go our way for a little bit there," Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt said. "To the guys' credit they regrouped, settled down, and started playing back to the baseball they know they can play."

The Nationals had opportunities to pad the lead, leaving the bases loaded in the third and fifth while stranding nine runners in the first five innings.

"When you have an opportunity to put teams away you've got to do that," Martinez said. "Especially with how hot the Cardinals are playing right now. They're going to come back."

The Cardinals got within one in the sixth. After DeJong and Kolten Wong came up with back-to-back, two-out RBI hits, Harrison Bader hit a slow grounder to third. Anthony Rendon's throw to first got away from Ryan Zimmerman for an error, allowing Wong to score from second to cut the Nationals' lead to 5-4.

Just two of the four runs Luke Weaver (6-11) allowed in his 3 2/3 innings were earned. He gave up seven hits, including two to Roark, who scored both times.

Tyson Ross allowed one unearned run in 3 1/3 innings of relief.

Bader homered in the third and Matt Carpenter walked twice to extend his on-base streak to a career-high 34 games.

TRAINING ROOM

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson will have an MRI on his sore right wrist on Friday. RHP Joe Ross (right elbow surgery) threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings at Class A Potomac on Thursday and is hoping for a September return.

Cardinals: RHP Carlos Martinez (right shoulder strain) will begin a rehab Friday at Double-A Springfield. RHP Adam Wainwright (right elbow inflammation) threw two scoreless innings Thursday night at High-A Palm Beach.

UP NEXT

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (15-5, 2.19 ERA) will take the mound as the Nationals return home for a three-game series Friday night against the Miami Marlins and RHP Dan Straily (4-5, 4.42 ERA). Scherzer is 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA in three starts this season against the Marlins.

Cardinals: RHP Jack Flaherty (6-6, 3.22 ERA) kicks off a three-game series Friday night as the Cardinals host the Milwaukee Brewers and RHP Freddy Peralta (5-3, 4.47 ERA). Flaherty struck out a career-high 13 batters in his last start against the Brewers on June 22.

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

In April, it would have been unfathomable. In May, it would have been laughable. In June, it would have been improbable. In July, it started to look possible. In August, it might even have been likely. Now, it’s a complete toss-up.

Juan Soto is the worthiest National League Rookie of the Year. So is Ronald Acuna.

It’s one of the most exciting rookie races in recent memory, not simply for the otherworldly numbers each freshman sensation is putting up, but for just how good they are at such young ages. Juan Soto is a jaw-dropping 19. Acuna, by comparison, is the wizened veteran at the old age of.. 20. 

The two are preternaturally talented, and their mature-beyond-their-years games have translated perfectly well to the big leagues. The question now is: which one will actually take home the hardware?

(Before we continue, I’ll note that Jack Flaherty, Brian Anderson, and Walker Buehler are all very talented young players who would at least be in the conversation in normal years).

The first step is to look at the numbers.

On the season Acuna is slashing .287/.347/.571, and his wRC+ is 144. He’s got 19 home runs and 8 stolen bases in just 68 games and his fWAR is 2.3. bWAR has him at 2.8

Soto’s slash line is currently .293/.420/.534, to go along with 15 home runs. His wRC+ is 153, and his fWAR is 2.7. His bWAR sits at 2.2.

Obviously, the numbers are terrific for both. Acuna has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuna has the edge in power, both in home runs and slugging percentage, plus he’s clearly the speedier player and better defender. If you’re looking for all-around game, he’s probably your man. Plus, for those who care about such things when voting on awards, the Braves are several games ahead of the Nats in the standings.

However, Soto’s performance has a couple things going for it. First of all, as impressive as it is that Acuna is taking the league by storm as a 20-year old, Soto is nearly a full year younger. It cannot be overemphasized how wild it is what Soto is doing as a teenager. He may very well be the greatest teenage batter in baseball history.

Secondly, Soto has been incredibly consistent. He’s basically been an All-Star level hitter since the day he was called up in May, whereas Acuna’s numbers, while very legitimate, are buoyed by his recent hot streak. He’s hit 8 home runs in 8 games, and of every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star Game, he has the highest wRC+ in that span. He’s had plenty of valleys to his peaks, though, and Soto has been a model of consistency. Of all hitters with at 200 at-bats this entire season, Soto ranks 7th over the entire season, That’s astounding.

Another point in Soto’s favor is just how historic his numbers are. Voters love a narrative, and as mentioned above, Soto is having literally the best offensive season a teenager has ever had. The highest wRC+ by a 19-year old in baseball history in Mel Ott with a 140 exactly 90 seasons ago. Soto is beating that by 13 so far.

The true separator, though, is Soto’s on-base percentage. His .420 mark is a comfortable 4th of all players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind elite batting eyes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. And, once again, we’re talking about something historic.

Soto’s .420 on-base percentage, if it holds, will be the only OBP over .400 for a teenager with 200 plate appearances in Major League history. In fact, outside of Ott’s .397 in 1928, no other teenager has ever reached base at a .360 clip, let alone Soto’s astronomical .420.

Ultimately, I believe more in Acuna’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuna is more well-rounded, but Soto’s elite batting eye has made him a top 10 hitter in baseball already. If Soto had been up on Opening Day and played at this level, he’d be on pace for a 5.5 WAR, which would top even Bryce Harper’s 2012 season.

As mentioned, voters love a narrative though, and if Acuna comes back from his injury and stays as hot as he’s been all August, it’ll be tough to ignore his performance during the Braves’ stretch run. This award is not over, but for now, Soto should be considered the favorite.

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