ST. LOUIS -- Daniel Hudson knew this was the kind of game in which he might be called on for more than one inning. A few of his fellow relievers had pitched frequently in recent days, while Hudson had thrown just one inning since Sept. 3. And, knowing how critical
ST. LOUIS -- Daniel Hudson knew this was the kind of game in which he might be called on for more than one inning. A few of his fellow relievers had pitched frequently in recent days, while Hudson had thrown just one inning since Sept. 3. And, knowing how critical each game is down the stretch in a tight National League Wild Card race, Hudson started to begin his warmup routine just a bit earlier. Once the bullpen phone rang to tell him to get ready for the eighth, Hudson knew he would have a chance to close the game.
The Nationals had avoided this kind of game for a month, the kind in which they needed to lean on their bullpen to seal a close game. Their most recent save had come on Aug. 16 and they had just one save opportunity since prior to Hudson’s two-inning, 26-pitch save to seal Washington’s 6-2 victory over the Cardinals on Tuesday at Busch Stadium.
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The win helped give the Nats some breathing room in a crowded NL Wild Card race. They moved 1 1/2 games ahead of both the Cubs and Brewers, who are tied for the final Wild Card spot.
“It’s that time of year. We’ve got to ride hot hands and just try to get wins any way we can,” Hudson said. “Whether that’s me throwing the eighth and ninth, or [Fernando] Rodney or [Sean Doolittle] or whoever. It’s just next man up. Try to ride the hot hands and get these 'W’s,' cause we really need them right now with this Wild Card race being so tight.”
This is the kind of game the Nationals might need to win should they secure a spot in October -- on the road against the NL-Central leading Cardinals in front of a crowd announced at 44,061. Patrick Corbin tossed another gem, giving up two unearned runs over six innings with 11 strikeouts, before handing a one-run lead to the bullpen.
It’s also the kind of game Washington has struggled to win. The Nats have spent most of the past month bludgeoning opponents with their powerful lineup, averaging 9.1 runs per game in their previous 16 wins entering Tuesday. That's why Hudson has pitched so infrequently recently, with the Nats too often waiting for opportunities that never arise. He’s been one of the best relievers on a team desperately searching for a bullpen ace, putting up a 2.00 ERA in 18 games with the Nats.
Hudson, one of Washington's prized acquisitions to revamp its bullpen at the Trade Deadline, has attempted to stay sharp during this stretch, tossing off a mound every third day and staying on top of his mechanics with extra reps in the bullpen.
“Nothing can really simulate getting out there in the eighth and ninth inning with a lead of less than three runs,” he said. “Sometimes getting out there for the first time in a while with all the adrenaline can kind of work against you. You just try to harness it and put it into every pitch.”
Prior to Tuesday’s game, however, acting manager Chip Hale said he would be looking for an opportunity to get Hudson into the game, not worried of overworking him with Thursday’s off-day right around the corner.
“Pretty much every inning we were thinking about the next one,” Hale said. “The word of the night was reconvene.”
Once Rodney got through the seventh inning spotless, the Nationals were comfortable putting the game in Hudson’s hands. He breezed through the eighth and, after getting some insurance runs from the offense, finished off the ninth inning for the team’s first save in more than a month.
Two days after that last save on Aug. 16, Doolittle went to the injured list and Hudson took over the closer’s role to try to stabilize the ninth inning after Doolittle’s rocky second half. The plan has been for Doolittle to return to his role as closer at some point, which could free Hudson up for the kind of multiple-inning outings like Tuesday's. That could be a significant boost for the Nationals' bullpen.
“I knew him from Arizona, just how much of a competitor he is,” Corbin said. “He’s someone you want to have the ball out there. He’s going to go out there and compete, and that’s something you love.”
Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.