Maybe the Washington Nationals needed to remember to have fun.
After dropping seven straight games to division opponents, the Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies, and New York Mets, the Nationals got a jolt of energy and enthusiasm from spot starter Josh Rogers, making his first major league start in more than two years, in a 4-3 win over the Mets.
The victory in the second game of a seven-inning doubleheader came after yet another failed comeback in an 11-9, extra-inning loss in the opener.
With his girlfriend, family and friends cheering him on, Rogers, a 27-year-old veteran of two Tommy John surgeries, earned all but the last four outs of the seven-inning contest.
He might have looked nervous on the mound, twitching his shoulders and knees prior to delivery, but for the left-hander, it was more about fun.
“I had a ball tonight,” a grinning Rogers told reporters after the game. “I had so much fun in the dugout, I had so much fun on the mound, and that’s all I wanted to bring was just some excitement, some energy, and it was a lot of fun.”
The Nationals signed Rogers to a minor league deal in June after the Baltimore Orioles released him from their Triple-A team, only four starts after his 2019 surgery.
“This means everything,” Rogers said. “This whole organization has given me a shot and given me an opportunity to pitch back in the big leagues, it means everything. I’ve worked super-hard over the past two years to get here, I’ve overcome a lot of adversity, and I’m super-excited and grateful for the opportunity to get a start here.”
Maybe that fun and enthusiasm spread to his teammates. Many of them seemed more relaxed and confident than they had in at least a week, and made the plays they needed to in key situations to keep the pressure on the Mets for once in the series.
Despite giving up an eight-pitch leadoff walk to Jonathan Villar, a double to Pete Alonso and an RBI single to Michael Conforto, Rogers quickly gained momentum by striking out J.D. Davis and Kevin Pillar, then retiring Jeff McNeil on a routine fly ball, all with men on first and third, to escape the first with just one run scored on him.
From then on, he allowed just two more hits and collected three more strikeouts, one to end the second and two to start the fifth. He escaped a two-walk jam in the third by getting PIllar to chase a change-up way outside the zone for a groundout to first, with Josh Bell racing to beat PIllar to the bag.
“He worked really, really quick, I love that,” said manager Davey Martinez. “He was getting the ball, getting on the mound, and he was ready to go again. And he threw strikes, he threw strikes when he had to, so he gave the team some energy tonight.”
Rogers was glad he had his out pitch working.
“What I’m good at is commanding the fastball,” Rogers explained. “And I got into deep counts there in that third inning I think it was, 3-0 to Alonso, 3-0 to the next hitter, and that’s not my game at all. I got to pitch ahead in the count, so honestly, my slider wasn’t great tonight, I was just grinding out there, competing, just trying to give it my all.”
Leading 4-1 in the sixth, Rogers gave up a leadoff single to Conforto before Kevin Pillar hit his third home run against the Nats in the past week to pull the Mets within 4-3.
After Rogers left to an ovation from the Nats Park crowd, Andres Machado struck out James McCann to preserve the lead.
“He was throwing the ball good, his tempo was good.,” Martinez said of Rogers. “I thought he could have gotten through that last inning, I really did, but he started cramping up, we went out and checked him, but he kept the tempo really good.
“We’ve been going to our bullpen a lot, and these guys needed a break,” Martinez continued. “So it was awesome that he was able to give us the innings that he did.”
Lane Thomas has looked as comfortable at the plate as any Nats’ hitter, so he got the offensive fun started by hammering a shoulder-high fastball over the right-center field fence to tie the game in the bottom of the first.
Carter Kieboom missed a few chances to give his team the lead or extend the game during the losing streak, but he jumped on his first chance to put the Nats ahead in the nightcap, knocking a 2-0 outside slider into right field to score Alcides Escobar and give the Nationals a 2-1 edge in the bottom of the first inning, their first lead against the Mets this weekend.
KIeboom was ejected in the bottom of the sixth for arguing balls and strikes, but Martinez said he liked the emotion Kieboom showed in disputing the call.
“He got fired up a little bit, and you know what, for me, that was good to see,” said the manager. “That he’s up there trying to battle and he thinks he got a ball. And the ejection, to me wasn’t real good, but the fact that he was arguing about a pitch shows me some emotion.”
Escobar, who doubled and drove in three runs in the first game but failed to advance or score the free runner in the eighth, made the most of his chance to increase the Nats’ lead in the fifth, belting a Tylor Megill four-seamer over the plate into the right field stands with Luis García aboard to extend the lead to 4-1.
After Machado got the Nats out of the sixth with a 4-3 lead, Kyle Finnegan, who gave up the two-run, extra-inning homer to Francisco Lindor that beat the Nats in the first game, came in again to face Lindor as a pinch hitter.
“I’m happy that he was,” said Martinez about the matchup to lead off the seventh. “I know a lot about Kyle and one thing I know about Kyle is that he’s going to give me everything he got no matter what, and you saw that tonight, he didn’t care who was hitting, he was going to bring it and try to get three outs.”
The right-hander seemed much more confident and sharp in the seventh inning of Game 2, inducing a groundout from Lindor and striking out Báez and Alonso with the tying run on to end the game and earn his seventh save. Finnegan’s 2-1 sinker on the lower-inside corner froze Alonso for strike three.
Martinez had absolute confidence in his closer this time around.
“Yeah, 100 percent,” Martinez said. “I told him if we get in a situation where he gets a chance to close the game out, I want him on the mound. And he threw the ball with his hair on fire tonight, which was awesome, and his fastball was electric.”
Even with the jolt of energy Rogers provided, Martinez would not commit to giving him another start.
“We’ll talk about that tomorrow,” Martinez said.
The first game of the twin bill was an error-filled contest that saw the Nationals continue their frustrations of the past week.
The Mets jumped on Erick Fedde for seven runs, three unearned, before the Nats found any life.
Trailing 7-0, the Nats broke through when Marcus Stroman issued a bases-loaded walk to Andrew Stevenson, plating Kiebert Ruiz. The Nats added two more against Stroman in the fourth, then added four more in the sixth on Escobar’s two-run double against Miguel Castro, and and Juan Soto’s two-run single off former Nats’ closer Brad Hand.
The Nats tied the game in the seventh on Stevenson’s two-run homer off Seth Lugo, but could not get any more.
The Nationals stranded the free runner in the eighth, and Finnegan gave up Lindor’s two-run, go-ahead shot in the top of the ninth.