Who are the 2021 Washington Nationals?
The Nats in 2019 thrived on coming from behind. Division-winning teams in 2016 and 2017 were more dominating from the start.
But once those teams found a style and established an identity, they played together and won games.
So was the Nats’ 9-7, 11-inning win Wednesday night over over the Tampa Bay Rays the game they finally learned how to win with everyone contributing?
“A huge win,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters afterward. “We know coming in here, we know Tampa is good, they are in first place, and I thought we battled, we battled with them.
“Keep working good at bats, and get the outs that we need and things can turn around really quickly.”
Juan Soto, Trea Turner and Ryan Zimmerman, as they have been for much of the season, accounted for all the Nationals’ scoring in the first nine innings.
This is Ryan Zimmerman’s 277th @MLB HR.— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) June 10, 2021
This is his 2nd HR at Tropicana Field.
*He’s still got it*#NATITUDE pic.twitter.com/2evKXfGd9h
Zimmerman had his first two-homer game of the season, with a solo shot in the third inning and a two-run bomb with Soto aboard in the fifth. Soto homered with Turner on to start the scoring in the first.
This is Ryan Zimmerman’s 278th @MLB HR.— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) June 10, 2021
This is his 27th multi-HR game.
*He’s still got it*#Ryanaissance // #NATITUDE pic.twitter.com/jrqmXCVIi2
But even with big games from all three, the Nats could still only stay tied at 5-5 after nine innings against baseball’s best team.
Patrick Corbin had trouble with his command in a three-run first inning, but put up four scoreless after that and left with a 5-3 lead after five.
“[Corbin] walked three guys, but he needs to stay away from those one big innings,” said Martinez.
“He has one inning where things just go awry for him. If he could just kind of stay away from those innings, as you can see, he settles down and gets through the game.
“I think he tends to want to speed things up, he’s just got to slow things down and just focus on that one pitch and get that one out.”
But no one in the bullpen — not generally reliable middle man Kyle Finnegan, nor trusty setup man Daniel Hudson, nor well-rested closer Brad Hand — was effective for more than one inning.
Finnegan gave up a homer to Taylor Walls in his second inning of work in the seventh to make it 5-4, and Hudson surrendered the game-tying homer to Wendle in the eighth after relieving Finnegan in the seventh.
In extras, with Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash using every trick in his book, the rest of the lineup finally came through in a game the Nationals basically had to win three times.
Hand already had escaped a potential Tampa Bay walk-off in the bottom of the ninth by working around a pair of walks, but Martinez wanted him to pitch the tenth.
“We had to push Hand there,” said Martinez. “He was off for four days, we wanted to get him out there. I knew we had the top of the lineup coming up if he could keep us right there, I really thought we could score some runs, and then he was good to go back out after that.”
Yan Gomes and Kyle Schwarber delivered clutch RBI in the tenth to give the Nats a 7-5 lead, but the Rays tied the score on Randy Arozarena’s RBI triple to score Austin Meadows, who started the inning on second base. Joey Wendle then singed to tie the game, and Hand did well to retire the last three batters to preserve the 7-7 tie.
Then more Washington bats that were mostly silent in regulation suddenly woke up, as Starlin Castro and Josh Harrison fueled the eventual game-wining two-run rally in the 11th.
“Great at bats,” said Martinez. “Those at bats were exactly what we we’re looking for in [those] situations, and it was great.”
Leading off the 11th with Jordy Mercer starting on second, Castro didn't have to wait for a pitch he could handle.
Rays’ reliever Diego Castillo obliged with a first-pitch fastball over the middle that Castro drove to left-field fence, less than a foot short of being a home run.
“He might want to throw a strike right away because he might want me to hit a ground ball to third, [so] that I can’t move the runner to third,” he explained. “That’s what I go up there ready to hit and see a pitch up that I can drive.”
“He knew Castillo,” said Martinez. “He knew what he was going to throw him.”
Mercer scored easily to make it 8-7, and after Victor Robles moved Castro to third base with a single, Harrison delivered a fly ball to center that was plenty deep enough to score Castro from third.
Tanner Rainey walked Kevin Kiermaier to lead off the 11th but retired the next three, including a strikeout of Meadows to end the game and earn his first career save.
“When you start with a guy on, a two-run lead is still one swing of the bat, so you’re still looking to limit anything possible,” said Rainey.
“Our offense comes through and puts up two in the top of the eleventh which makes that a little easier, that guy doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning unless that guy behind him can score as well.”