MIAMI — There are days when a team can win a ballgame on the strengths of dominant starting pitching and a robust lineup that does some early damage. And then there are days when victory comes only via some late production in key spots and some key outs recorded by the back of the bullpen.
The Nationals have experienced more of those latter types of games recently than perhaps they'd like. They're certainly not great for Matt Williams' blood pressure. But they are necessary over the course of a season, and on Wednesday it took everything the Nats had in them to pull one off.
In beating the Marlins 4-3, the Nationals produced a 3-run rally in the top of the eighth, getting key production from Scott Hairston, Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond. And then they watched as Drew Storen, filling in for overworked closer Rafael Soriano for the day, nearly gave all three runs back in the bottom of the ninth, only to escape with his first save of the year.
"Ugly," said Storen when asked how he'd describe his inning of work. "But got it done, that's really the main thing. It's about winning the game and getting the save."
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Storen never would have had the opportunity to close this one out if not for an impressive rally by his teammates an inning earlier. With the game knotted 1-1 since the fourth, the Nationals finally took the lead back with a rally ignited by a seemingly forgotten man: Hairston.
Despite holding a spot on the active roster for all but a couple of weeks early when he strained an oblique muscle, Hairston came up to bat Wednesday with only 52 plate appearances for the season, only 34 since May 19. Challenged to keep his swing fresh despite such a lack of playing time, he delivered his biggest hit in a long time when he roped a liner to left-center to open the eighth, then took off for second and reached safely for a hustle double.
"I just wanted to do my best to have a good at-bat," the veteran outfielder said. "I didn't want to swing at anything out of the zone. Just try to stay within myself and not try to do too much. I hadn't gotten an at-bat in a couple days. My timing has been on and off all year, but I just wanted to focus on middle of the field and I was able to get a pitch up I could handle."
Trying to move Hairston to third base, Span was given the sign to put down a sacrifice bunt. Except the bunt was so well-executed, Span actually beat it out, giving the Nationals runners on the corners and no outs.
"We wanted to move the runner to third base and get one at least," Williams said. "But he laid down a perfect one."
Werth's sacrifice fly to left was deep enough to score Nate McLouth (who pinch-ran for Hairston once he got to third) and give the Nationals the lead, but they weren't done yet. LaRoche drew a walk, then joined Span in swiping second base when the Marlins essentially gave it to him. That put both runners in scoring position to score on Desmond's RBI double.
"The way that whole inning unfolded was great," Desmond said. "Denard getting the bunt down. You see it a million times: A guy putting the bunt down and jogging down to first. He busted it right out of the box. That was huge. Jayson had a great at-bat. Rochie getting into scoring position was great, too. It's a tough time for some of us, but you've got to keep grinding and doing the small things. That's what we were able to do today."
Those stolen bases, especially LaRoche's, proved huge by the end of the afternoon, because it gave Storen a 3-run cushion, and he needed every bit of it.
After blowing a 3-run lead in the ninth inning Monday night, Soriano was given the following day off to rest. But Williams decided to give his veteran closer another day off, recognizing his arm needed it after so much recent use.
"The amount of pitches he threw Monday, and certainly his workload before that, we decided to give him a couple of days," Williams said. "Sori should be ready to go tomorrow. It all worked out the way we wanted it to work out."
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Well, it did work out, though not without some harrowing moments. Storen entered and immediately served up an opposite-field homer to Giancarlo Stanton. Two quick outs, though, put the Nationals on the verge of a comfortable victory. Except it still wasn't over yet.
Marcell Ozuna placed a broken-bat grounder just deep enough into the hole at short for an infield single. Adeiny Hechavarria placed a soft liner just inside the bag at first base, turning it into an RBI double. Throw in a walk to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and suddenly the Marlins had the tying run on second base, the winning run on first base.
"You've just got to start over every single pitch," Storen said of the mental challenge in that situation. "Stuff is going to happen in the ninth inning. You can't let it snowball. It's not always going to be pretty, but it's about just getting it done."
Which he did. Storen got Reed Johnson to rap a grounder to third, and the Nationals escaped with a much-needed victory.
They head home after an eventful road trip, one that begin in Colorado with spirits soaring before Ryan Zimmeman suffered a significant hamstring injury, then concluded in Miami with an epic collapse one night, a tough loss the next and finally a hard-earned victory in the finale.
"We played well," Desmond said. "We battled some stuff. We kind of endured. It was definitely a long road trip. We're excited to get home and see our own fans."