Nats' late-game grit pays off vs. division rivals

June 3rd, 2023

WASHINGTON -- A commanding six-run lead and a near-squandered advantage. A clutch hit and a gutsy pitching performance.

The Nationals’ series opener against the Phillies on Friday night at Nationals Park had nine innings of action, culminating in a late-game sequence of events that led to an 8-7 victory and the Nats tying their National League East opponent in the standings.

“I think nobody really expected us to be here,” said . “I think we take a few series like we have over the last month, and we could be pretty good here in a few months.”

The Nationals (25-32) have gone 15-15 since posting a 10-17 record in April. They handed the Phillies their fifth straight loss, and a win on Saturday would move the Nats out of the bottom of the division for the first time since April 10.

Let’s take a look at three key moments that helped Washington grind out this close win.

Savvy stolen base
After the Phillies erased the Nationals’ early 7-1 edge, the Nats were down to their final out of the eighth inning in a tied game when came to the plate. He drew a walk with the hot-hitting Thomas on deck.

A student of the game, Call assessed the situation with two strikes on Thomas. When Connor Brogdon’s pitch landed in the dirt, he bolted on catcher J.T. Realmuto.

“It’s all about the jump,” Call said. “Realmuto’s really good, so you’ve got to have some kind of advantage. … Trust your eyes -- that’s the big thing, just because things happen really quick and there’s a big league game, a lot of pressure, too. You want to make the right decisions and trust your eyes.”

Call dashed for his fifth stolen base of the season and second in as many games, putting himself in scoring position for Thomas.

“The difference between being on first and second is so big,” said Call. “In a tie game, it’s a really good feeling [to steal a base], because not everybody can do it. There’s a reason why not everybody does it. It feels really good just to be able to help the team in any way.”

Thomas delivers
Thomas was coming off a career-best 26-game on-base streak that ended on Wednesday. He fell behind, 1-2, to Brogdon in the eighth inning before evening the count and then coming through with a clutch swing of the bat. Thomas hit a fly ball into center field for a single to drive in Call for the go-ahead run.

“I was just trying to see something up and middle and try to put a good swing on it, kind of right-center,” said Thomas. “[He] threw a changeup. I was a little bit late still but just got enough bat on it, and it fell.”

Thomas has been effective as the Nationals’ leadoff hitter in sparking the offense, but this time he delivered in a clutch late-game moment.

“I think you want people to want you up in that situation,” said Thomas. “So that’s the cool part, having your teammates trust you. It’s awesome to get a hit like that and come through for those guys that came in and kind of closed the door for us.”

Finnegan finishes it
Call and Thomas’ eighth-inning performance set the stage for reliever to ice the win in dramatic fashion. Finnegan already had pitched in the top of the eighth, and he confidently told manager Dave Martinez he could get the job done facing the Phillies’ power hitters.

“I honestly didn’t want to put him back out there for the ninth, and he was adamant about going back out,” said Martinez, later adding, “today he was not giving in about going back out there. It was beautiful. He went out there, he picked up his teammates. I saw the energy they had in that last inning just trying to get those three outs, and he did a great job.”

Finnegan felt he “had some more in [him and he] wanted to empty the tank.” He struck out Bryce Harper in a 2-2 count to start the ninth, allowed a double to Nick Castellanos, got Trea Turner to fly out and induced a popup to first base from Realmuto to earn the win. He threw a total of 34 pitches (20 strikes) in 1 2/3 innings.

“It’s good to put yourself on the line and come out on top,” said Finnegan. “It’s a big confidence boost, and hopefully it’ll give us a little bit of momentum heading into tomorrow. It’s a big series for us, and every game’s important. But in the division and [against] a team we play all the time, you want to win these games."