MINNEAPOLIS — The Washington Nationals’ bullpen stirred into motion in the bottom of the sixth inning Wednesday night, and it didn’t stop moving until it had recorded the final nine outs of a needed win.
The relievers, all wearing red sweatshirts until their names were called, huddled on a small wooden bench by the door to the field. One by one they stood up, braved the late-summer chill in Minneapolis and helped the Nationals hold on to a 6-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.
Wander Suero, Sean Doolittle, Fernando Rodney and Daniel Hudson combined to finish off the Twins and keep Washington at least 2 1/2 games up on the Chicago Cubs for the National League’s top wild-card spot. Stephen Strasburg, without his best command, battled through six innings and gave up two runs. The offense, having slumped for most of the past week, was keyed by three hits each from Howie Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman. Kendrick, 36, drove in one run and scored another. Zimmerman, 34, blasted a two-run homer in the third inning. Trea Turner added a solo shot in the ninth.
The Cubs were starting a game with the Padres in San Diego when Hudson recorded the final out for Washington. The Milwaukee Brewers — right behind the Cubs, sneaking up on the Nationals — kept pace with a win over the Miami Marlins. That all made the Nationals’ win, and their bullpen’s three-inning effort, a necessary change of pace.
Washington had lost five of six games heading into Wednesday and the race is tightening around it, but there is no tangible uneasiness around the team. Baseball players are conditioned to ride the wave, to block out other teams’ results, to approach each day with nothing but tunnel vision. They live by cliches such as, “One game at a time” and, “We’ll get them tomorrow.” And some even believe them.
The Nationals do know where they stand in the postseason hunt. But here is what the clubhouse looked like before their second of three games against the Twins: Gerardo Parra napped face down on a brown leather couch. Patrick Corbin, lying on the couch across from him, scrolled through his iPhone. Victor Robles picked through a box of dominoes. Aníbal Sánchez and Asdrúbal Cabrera laughed while playing cards. MLB Network played on TVs and through wall-mounted speakers — “The Brewers’ schedule may just be easy enough for them to catch the Nationals,” one of its announcers was saying — but it only washed over players like white noise.
“I don’t look at the standings, and you know why?” Martinez said a few hours before first pitch, pausing for effect as he leaned forward in his desk chair. “Because everybody tells me!”
It is unavoidable this time of year. So all Martinez can do, and all his club can do, is prepare for the next chance to pad its slight lead. The offense, shut out by the Twins on Tuesday, was at it right away against Minnesota starter Martín Pérez. Adam Eaton hit a one-out double in the first, Anthony Rendon followed with a walk, and Juan Soto scored Eaton with a seeing-eye single into center. Zimmerman added a second run by the end of the inning with a knock into center, and he keyed another rally in the third.
That started with Soto walking with two outs and Kendrick doubling him in. Next Zimmerman dug into the box, tracked an outside fastball and, with a full-extension swing, sent that two-run shot into the left field seats.
Strasburg soon gave up a two-run homer to Jorge Polanco in the bottom half. But the right-hander otherwise battled through a lingering mist and dropping temperatures. He needed 29 pitches to keep the Twins scoreless in the first. Minnesota kept working counts, making Strasburg work in almost every at-bat, and he avoided their powerful bats with seven strikeouts in six innings. He needed just six pitches to retire the Twins in order in the sixth. Then he left the game, his pitch count up to 104, and handed it over to the bullpen.
When the Nationals trailed 2-0 on Tuesday and were still within striking distance, Martinez opted for Tanner Rainey instead of his usual high-leverage options. Rainey was charged with three runs to take Washington out of the game. Martinez later explained that he wanted to save Suero, Hudson, Hunter Strickland, Doolittle and Rodney for when the Nationals held a lead. Then, just about 24 hours later, he began rolling those relievers onto the field.
Suero got the first two outs of the seventh before giving up a single. Martinez called on Doolittle, his closer turned lefty specialist of the moment, and Doolittle got Luis Arraez to line out to left. Rodney put two runners on in the eighth, bringing the tying run to the plate with no outs, but got two flyouts and a popout. Hudson had the ninth, after Turner stretched the lead, and navigated around a pair of two-out hits to secure the win.
It couldn’t have passed as the cleanest exit. But all that mattered is that it worked.