And how did it end Wednesday night? With a 5-4 win over the Miami Marlins delivered by Keibert Ruiz’s bat and a shutdown 10th from Victor Arano.
“I cannot say enough about Keibert,” Manager Dave Martinez said of his 23-year-old catcher finishing with two doubles, a single and two walks. “What a tremendous game he had, honestly — behind the plate, hitting, everything. A good all-around player, and he’s getting better. Every time he’s out there, he’s getting better.”
After Josiah Gray worked six strong innings — and after the Nationals excelled against López, one of the season’s most dominant starters — Tanner Rainey was handed his first save opportunity since May 8. Few late-inning leads have meant few chances for the 29-year-old closer. He had notched his previous save April 19, when he loaded the bases with none down against the Arizona Diamondbacks and somehow wiggled free.
But like 10 days before in Anaheim, Calif., Rainey could not harness his command, issuing back-to-back one-out walks to load the bases before Jazz Chisholm Jr. drove in Sánchez. Once the decision with Sánchez was flipped from a double play to a tying sacrifice fly, after the Nationals (13-26) had gathered as if they had caught a break, Rainey raised his glove and barked for a ball, competing with loud cheers from the small crowd at LoanDepot Park.
Rainey recovered to keep the winning run at second by inducing a soft grounder from Jesús Aguilar. In the next half, with an automatic runner at second, Victor Robles sacrificed Dee Strange-Gordon to third before Ruiz knocked him in with a double. Then Arano stranded relief pitcher Anthony Bass, who subbed in as the Marlins’ automatic runner, with a groundout, a deep flyout to center and a soft grounder to Alcides Escobar at short.
Way earlier in the night, César Hernández led the push to squeeze three runs out of López, who had blanked the Nationals for six innings April 27. He brought the punch their offense had lacked all week, when the options seemed to be to single or get out. Hernández’s first plate appearance: a triple to the right field corner on López’s ninth pitch. (Shoddy fielding from Avisaíl García in right helped him pick up one extra base, maybe two.) The leadoff man’s second trip to the box: an RBI double on the sixth pitch of his at-bat, driving in Escobar, who had just driven in Ruiz.
Ruiz reached in five at-bats for the first time in his career. Martinez made sure to note that he also blocked a handful of Rainey’s and Arano’s sliders in the ninth and 10th.
“Trying to get my pitch early in the count, be patient, just waiting for my pitch and don’t try to do too much,” Ruiz said. “That helped me to see the ball better.”
López threw 82 pitches to record nine outs for the Marlins (17-20). In late April, by contrast, he needed just 84 pitches to set down 18 batters at Nationals Park, shaving his ERA to 0.39 in the process. By the end of this game, it was a still-dominant 1.57, López’s highest mark since his first start.
Gray, on the other hand, yielded three runs in six innings, capping his outing with three swinging strikeouts. Chisholm tagged him with a leadoff triple in the first, scored on a sacrifice fly and then rocked a solo homer in the fifth. But Gray, 24, recovered to retire the last six batters he faced, handing a tie to the bullpen.
At first, it was a good night for Hernández, the veteran second baseman atop Washington’s order. But as the action wore on, Gray and Ruiz — the key prospects acquired in the Max Scherzer/Trea Turner trade last summer — nudged the Nationals to their first win over the Marlins in six matchups. Their efforts snapped a three-game skid.
“We’re both young guys, and obviously when someone’s talking about one, they’re probably talking about the other,” Gray said of Ruiz. “To see him have continued success is awesome, and we feed off that.”
Why did Martinez have Robles bunt with no outs in the 10th? “I looked at the situation, I looked who was running, I looked who was batting. I thought it was a perfect opportunity for Robles to get the guy over — let’s get ahead,” he explained. “I saw the matchups; we had Arano up, and I thought that, bulk of guys, he can get guys out. It’s a tough group, but Arano has a good slider, so we liked him right there.”
Did how Arano’s slider plays against righties factor into the decision?
“Yeah, it was perfect,” Martinez answered. “Arano is tough on righties. If we would have got to Sánchez, [lefty Josh] Rogers was up. He probably would have had to come in and close out the game. But Arano did a great job.”
How did Gray record his seven strikeouts? Slider, slider, slider, slider, slider, slider, curveball. In all, he got 27 swings on his slider and 15 whiffs, a remarkable 56 percent swing-and-miss rate. Four called strikes with it helped him along, too. Gray was expected to throw his slider often against the Marlins’ righty-heavy lineup. But that he had so much success with it — and threw it 42 times compared with 34 four-seam fastballs — was a step forward.