- The Washington Times
Wednesday, June 23, 2021

At the end of a game that had everything — including two grand slams, a blown save and eight Nationals pitchers piecing together a wild nine innings — Jordy Mercer knelt behind second base, towel pressed to his bloody nose and lip.

The would-be game-ending ground ball had skipped off Mercer’s glove, bounced up and caught the second baseman in the face. So manager Dave Martinez and trainer Paul Lessard trotted onto the field, and Martinez gauged Mercer’s condition. With Yan Gomes the only available fielder on the bench, Martinez asked what Mercer thought of the catcher slotting in at third base.

“And he goes, ‘I’m swallowing my blood,’” Martinez said.

That’s what the Nationals did, too, throughout the whiplash-inducing 13-12 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday afternoon, a game in which each offense kept slugging their way back into the contest.

Starlin Castro punched Washington into the lead in the top of the ninth with a two-run single, landing the final blow. Then in the bottom of the ninth, Paolo Espino — a spot starter pressed into closing duties because of how thin the Nationals’ bullpen was — retook the mound once Mercer’s bleeding was more under control.

Soon, redemption came Mercer’s way in the form of a line drive. Mercer snared that ball to secure Washington’s ninth win in its past 10 games, spitting out more blood for good measure on his way to celebrate with his teammates.

“One word: Boom,” Martinez said when asked how he’d sum up a game that could be separated into chapters to adequately describe all the action that occurred. “There’s no way to sum it up. We kept battling back. We were down five, we battled back. They came back, we battled back. They took the lead, and at the end of the day, we’re 1-0.”

Martinez’s summation covers the basics. The Nationals found themselves trailing three times, and all three times they found a way to claw back into the contest — and then surpass the Phillies.

“Those are the types of games that tell us how good we are,” Castro said.

Erick Fedde, who had entered on the back of 20 straight scoreless innings, struggled in his four frames, allowing five runs. But on Vince Velasquez’s second time through Washington’s batting order, the Phillies starter also ran into trouble. He gave up run-scoring singles to Castro and Victor Robles before he was pulled.

Then Kyle Schwarber stepped in to face reliever Archie Bradley, and the Nationals slugger clobbered a hanging breaking ball the opposite way to tie the game at five, giving Schwarber his sixth long ball in four games. The first of two bullpen collapses ensued, though, as Kyle McGowin recorded two outs before loading the bases and serving up a grand slam to Andrew McCutchen.

“We had that mentality where it’s like, no lead is safe for the opposition,” Josh Bell said. “This week, with Schwarber going off the way that he did, so we felt like if we can keep things going, it doesn’t really matter. We just need a little bit of a switch there.”

The four-run deficit vanished in a hurry, this time through a two-run single from Trea Turner before the bases were loaded again. With Bell at the plate, the raucous celebrations soon unfolded. The first baseman smashed a grand slam of his own to left-center field, flinging his bat toward the third-base dugout while his teammates leaped and yelled, an 11-9 lead in hand.

After Bell’s struggles to begin the season, he’s since righted the ship, raising his average to .228 with his two key hits Wednesday. Martinez, emotional during his postgame Zoom press conference, said Bell’s blast “made him a National.”

“Big-time emotion,” Castro said of that moment. “We losing 5-0. We tie the game. After that, they hit a grand slam, and then JB brings it back. I think it’s super awesome, and a really good feeling.”

But to piece together 27 outs Wednesday afternoon, Martinez needed to think creatively. Closer Brad Hand was unavailable, having thrown 34 pitches the night before and having pitched four times in five days. Daniel Hudson and Kyle Finnegan are both on the injured list, further reducing Martinez’s typical go-to options.

So Martinez turned to Austin Voth in the eighth inning, pitching in consecutive games for the first time in his major league career. And after throwing 23 pitches Tuesday across two scoreless innings, Voth couldn’t find the strike zone. He walked Bryce Harper. He allowed a single to J.T. Realmuto. And while he came back from a 3-0 count to strike out Brad Miller, the issues compounded once Tanner Rainey took the mound — pitching for a second straight day, too.

In these situations, Hudson (if healthy) or Hand (if he wasn’t overworked already) might’ve shut the door. Instead, Rainey was on the mound, and he promptly allowed the tying and go-ahead runs to Philadelphia.

But when Bell stood in the on-deck circle ahead of the top of the ninth, he could feel the wind swinging in Washington’s direction again. He turned to Josh Harrison and told him they’d get the inning started. And they did, with consecutive singles.

“It was definitely cool to kind of speak it into existence,” Bell said.

Alex Avila bunted the pair into scoring position, and Castro came to the plate, searching out a fastball and wanting to elevate a hit to at least tie the game. His single into center field brought home both runs and gave the Nationals a 13-12 lead — one step closer to a conclusion.

So in came Espino, who earned his first major league win last week as a starter, to earn his first major league save as a fill-in closer.

There was blood from Mercer, and enough topsy-turvy pitching to give each offense ample cracks. But in the end, the Nationals captured another win, no matter how many twists and turns were necessary to get there.

• Andy Kostka can be reached at akostka@washingtontimes.com.

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