CHICAGO — As he stood in the dank cement hallway that leads to the cramped visitors clubhouse within the friendly confines of Wrigley Field on Tuesday night, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson talked about a victory.
He ran through all of the positive things his team did in a 4-2 win over the Cubs that featured yet another superb performance from Dan Haren as his second-half renaissance continued and two huge insurance runs in the ninth inning to give Rafael Soriano a three-run lead in the ninth. Johnson was relaxed. He smiled, and laughed.
Then, near the end, a question about the 21 runners the Nationals managed to put on base and the seemingly impossible fact that they were only able to score four of them began to be posed. It was never finished.
“Don’t even go there,” the manager said with a laugh. “I struggled through that one. We had so many opportunities. The one that killed me was where (Scott) Hairston hit a ball six inches in front of home plate with runners at second and third. That’s the way we’re going.”
“Some of the ways we’re finding to get out is unbelievable,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “It’s bound to change at some point. It did in the ninth and hopefully we can continue to do that.”
It stood to reason that even with all of the mind-boggling ineffectiveness the Nationals (61-64) have shown this season with runners on base and in scoring position, when there are 21 over the course of nine innings, a team is bound to bring at least a few home.
Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Tyler Moore and Denard Span helped them be sure of that.
“Obviously we’re getting guys on base so that part of it’s not frustrating,” said Span, who came off the bench as a defensive replacement — sitting with a left-handed starter going for the Cubs — and driving in the Nationals’ fourth run with a ninth-inning double.
“The part where we can’t get them in is frustrating. The name of the game is scoring runs. We had opportunities earlier in the game to blow the game wide open and we didn’t do it. Thank God we we’re able to get some more opportunities later in the game and give us a few more insurance runs going into the ninth inning.”
Luckily, as Haren continued to prove that he was not the pitcher he began this season as but still the same effective workhorse he’s been in the past, a few was plenty.
When Haren went on the disabled list in late June, he did so carrying the worst ERA of any starter in the National League at 6.15. In eight starts — and one save — since, Haren’s pitched to a 2.16 ERA and allowed more than two runs in an outing only once.
What he has done for the Nationals in that span has been remarkable.
On Tuesday, in a ballpark that Haren said is “scary to watch BP out there,” he made only one costly mistake, a 2-2 split-finger fastball in on the hands of Brian Bogusevic that the Cubs left fielder dropped into the first row of seats in right center field.
Feeling a bit more fatigued than usual given his relief appearance Saturday night in the 15th inning, Haren allowed just four other hits, saved his fielders when they made two errors behind him, and struck out six.
Haren has been so good, it has made what he will do with himself as a free agent a intriguing question.
“I really haven’t thought about it,” said Haren, who is nearing the end of his one-year, $13 million deal with the Nationals. “I’ve been so focused on this year, just trying to turn it around. As good as I’ve pitched the last month or so, I still have an ERA in the mid-4.00s. So that kind of tells you how bad I was. I just really haven’t thought about (next year). I really want to keep this rolling.”
“It’s been unbelievable,” Johnson said, suggesting that Haren is making himself attractive to teams in a better contending position than the Nationals. Asked about the right-hander’s prospects for next season, Johnson focused on an even more immediate timetable.
“For a pennant run,” he said. “He’s a big-game pitcher. And he’s showing it every time he goes out now.”