WASHINGTON -- Score early and get the offense going. It’s a plan of attack that’s been emphasized to the Nationals throughout the season, but executing it has proved challenging.
On Thursday, they followed through to set the tone for a 5-1 series finale win over the Phillies at Nationals Park. Washington snapped a four-game losing streak and avoided a sweep against its National League East division foe.
“It was great,” manager Dave Martinez said. “We talk about it all the time -- when you get that lead early, we’re pretty good when that happens.”
Though the Phillies struck first when Andrew McCutchen stole home, the Nats responded with a season-high-tying four runs in the bottom of the first inning. This offensive burst came less than 24 hours after Martinez held a team meeting to boost morale following a 10th-inning loss.
Kyle Schwarber and Josh Bell propelled the Nats with a duo of two-run homers in the first off Zach Eflin. Schwarber’s home run traveled a Statcast-estimated 399 feet to left field, and Bell followed two batters later with a 445-foot blast to right-center. Both shots were the players’ fourth of the season.
"The backdoor slider to Bell kind of got a little bit more middle of the plate than I wanted. He did a good job of ambushing,” Eflin said. “The one to Schwarber was kind of middle away, a little up. I'm trying to go down and away right there and get a roll over. But I left it up a little bit, and he did what he was supposed to do."
Talk about timing -- not only had Bell and Schwarber been struggling at the plate this season, they had faltered over their careers against the Phillies. Bell entered the game hitting .202 (17-for-84, 3 home runs) and Schwarber was batting .189 (17-for-90, 7 homers) facing Philadelphia.
Bell, who had struck out in a key bases-loaded situation in the series opener, got only three hours of sleep on Wednesday as he stayed up studying game film. He also arrived at Nats Park early Thursday morning to talk at length with hitting coach Kevin Long.
“To be able to simplify, work through some things mechanically and have it click that first pitch, I was really stoked,” Bell said, adding, “That was by the far the best swing of the year -- the most connected, the most behind it, best ball flight for sure. Hopefully more to come."
Martinez has reiterated the importance of middle-of-the-order contributions from Bell and Schwarber. The Nats acquired Bell from the Pirates on Christmas Eve and signed Schwarber as a free agent to boost their starting lineup.
“[The home runs] uplifted our team and those two guys,” Martinez said. “I’ve got all the confidence in the world in those two -- it’s going to come. They’re going to help us win a lot of games. But for today, it was two good at-bats. They hit the ball hard and far, and that’s awesome. Just what we needed.”
The Nats’ early lead provided starter Patrick Corbin with ample run support as he pitched seven innings with five hits, one run and a season-high nine strikeouts and no walks. Martinez considered Corbin’s slider to be the best he has seen from the southpaw all year.
“It was awesome to see Schwarber and Bell come up with those homers there in the first to put us on the board,” Corbin said. “It kind of allowed me to go out there, attack these guys and try to have quick innings to get them back up in the batter’s box.”
Following the victory, the Nationals traveled out west with positive momentum for a three-game series to face the D-backs, whom they went 2-2 against in April.
“It’s only one game, but hopefully we do it [score early] tomorrow,” Martinez said. “That’s the gist of it -- put the pressure on the other team when you come out and score first like that. It was a good day for the Nats."