WASHINGTON -- The Nationals entered their final homestand of the season with a singular objective in sight. Locking up a spot in the National League Wild Card Game would not only become the next chapter written amid the in-season turnaround, it would also end the club’s one-year hiatus from October baseball. And the more quickly it’s done, the better.
That goal could be accomplished as soon as Tuesday evening. With the Nationals’ magic number trimmed to two after a 4-1 doubleheader Game 1 win over the Phillies on Tuesday afternoon, a nightcap victory with Max Scherzer on the mound, paired with a Cubs loss to the Pirates, would mean that the plastic wrap already set up in the home clubhouse will need to be unfurled.
“All you need is just a ticket to the dance,” said reliever Sean Doolittle, who pitched with a late, slim lead for the first time since Aug. 17. “Once you’re in, then anything can happen. You win that game, and that could be the momentum that carries you into the next few weeks into a deep run.”
The Nationals, all of a sudden, are back to playing the brand of baseball that made their trip to the NL Wild Card Game seem like a sure thing just a few weeks ago. Then came the skid that started September, but back at the forefront of the clubhouse is the confidence and comfort that the berth is at the team’s fingertips.
And of course, it didn’t hurt that Tuesday’s Game 1 triumph eliminated the Bryce Harper-led Phillies from postseason contention.
“It’s just nice to win,” said manager Dave Martinez. “So let’s just keep winning.”
Doolittle, back end beginning to take shape
Tuesday was the first day Martinez was able to finally use his back-end of the bullpen the way he’s envisioned. Doolittle took the eighth with a slim lead, and Daniel Hudson followed for the ninth.
How he plans to interchange those two in the late innings will mostly depend on matchups. Regardless, Doolittle’s fastball touched 95 mph amid a clean eighth inning where he saw a switch-hitter in César Hernández, lefty Harper and righty Rhys Hoskins.
“It’s another step forward,” Doolittle said. “I’m not claiming to be back by any means. I think this is still an ongoing process, but we are definitely moving in the right direction.”
“We’ve come along way with Doo over the last month,” Martinez said. “He feels good. We changed some things, we like where he’s at. He likes where he’s at a lot. And I told him, ‘I know you’re used to striking guys out. Right now, it’s just to get outs.’”
The bullpen as a whole hears the noise, and the group is well aware of how historically poor a season 2019 has been for them.
And while Tuesday’s performance -- which saw five perfect innings after starter Joe Ross scattered five hits and a run across the first four -- won’t fully determine which bullpen shows up come a potential postseason, it is, like Tuesday was for Doolittle, a building block.
“For all the narrative that’s gone on in the back end of games this year, I think there’s still time for us to be at our best to help close this out down the stretch,” Doolittle said. “I think we come to the field every day looking to flip that narrative and say, ‘Yeah, things didn't go that well the majority of the season, but down the stretch and to the playoffs, they were nails. Guys still have that confidence and they still have that swagger, so today was good for us as a group.”
Ross, exit stage right
For little fault of his own, Ross most likely won’t be on the Nats’ potential postseason roster.
Still, Tuesday was a progression for the young righty in a season full of them. After starting the year in the bullpen, Ross has pitched to a 2.97 ERA as a starter/bulk pitcher since July 21, discounting his outing prior to Tuesday’s which preceded his first reports of a right forearm ailment.
Ross slogged through a brutal first inning on Tuesday, loading the bases with one out before escaping with just one run yielded. All told, his preplanned limited outing saw him throw 28 pitches in the first frame and 36 combined across the the next three.
Ross missed almost all of 2018 due to Tommy John surgery, but he will take this renewed confidence into the offseason should he not appear again before the year’s end.
“Just knowing what I’ve been doing has been working and not having to go into the offseason with a whole mentality of having to recreate and start over again,” Ross said. “Give myself a good base for next year.”
Getting his team one game closer to October baseball also helps.