As the Washington Nationals filed off the field and into their clubhouse Tuesday night, the televisions that greeted them were all tuned to the same thing. As the sounds from the Cincinnati Reds - St. Louis Cardinals game came streaming through, it was hard to tell if the broadcast was meant to be informational or aspirational.
The Nationals’ 2-1 victory over the Marlins, sealed with a superb four-inning performance from the bullpen that made two first-inning runs hold up, was perhaps a start toward making the out-of-town scoreboard more important to the Nationals these last few weeks.
The start of a 19-game stretch in which the Nationals will play exclusively divisional opponents that trail them in the standings began with a victory — their 12th in the last 17 games — and they moved a game above .500 for just the second time since the All-Star break.
Early in the day, manager Davey Johnson talked of his goals for the final five weeks of the season. “I still think we’re in a pennant drive,” he said. “We’re definitely not rebuilding the talent here.”
Two hours after their own game went final, the Reds lost. The Nationals’ trailed the second wild card spot by seven games — the smallest their deficit had been since Aug. 5.
“We’re playing good right now on our own,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “It’s not really up to anybody else besides ourselves. All we can do is go out and play, and the rest will take care of itself.”
The Nationals talked of this victory, a close one in which their offense largely disappeared after the first inning, as a “good team win.” Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper reached base with one out in the first, and Jayson Werth and Desmond scored them. That was essentially it for the evening.
So they lauded their relievers, who took over when Ross Ohlendorf began to show signs of tiring after five scoreless innings, especially the nearly-infallible Tyler Clippard, who continues to prove his worth as one of the league’s best relievers. Clippard took out the top of the Marlins’ order in the eighth and finished the frame with three straight fastballs to strike out Giancarlo Stanton. Rafael Soriano collected his 34th save of the season with a scoreless ninth.
“Clippard had the heavy load in that one,” manager Davey Johnson said with a chuckle. “He’s been doing it all year. He’s been doing it ever since I’ve been here.”
But the Nationals’ are in an interesting position. They’re borderline contenders — if they continue to play well and others crumble — while also looking toward the future.
Johnson also spoke at length on Tuesday afternoon about wanting to get good looks at young players. He mentioned Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Wilson Ramos and Tanner Roark all by name as those who can expect a steady diet of work in the season’s final month.
Roark, in particular, may get more of an opportunity in the very near future.
While Johnson has been pleased with Ohlendorf, who allowed just three hits through five-plus innings on Tuesday, the right-hander appears to tire after five or so. Ohlendorf insisted he was not “gassed” when he began to throw what he called “(batting practice) fastballs” in the sixth inning that were roughly 10 mph slower than his usual ones. He said that was by design. Johnson still felt he was done for the night.
In five days, Roark, who has pitched exceptionally well to a 1.04 ERA in 17.1 innings since getting called up, may be in the rotation and Ohlendorf may be back serving as the long man.
“That’s probably where we’re going to do,” Johnson said. “But I’ll make that decision probably tomorrow.”
“That’s the first I’ve heard of it,” Ohlendorf said. “I’ve been enjoying starting. I’ll do whatever they ask.”
“I’ve been mostly a starter this whole season down in Triple-A but it’d definitely be different here up in the big leagues,” Roark said. “I’d do my best, go out there and have fun and try to keep winning.”
So here the Nationals are, debating whether to remove the right-hander who began the year as depth in Triple-A with no sure path to the major leagues to install the younger right-hander who was only briefly in major league camp with them this spring.
They want to see what Roark can do, perhaps for the future, perhaps because it may give them the best chance to win when the No. 5 spot in the rotation comes up, though Ohlendorf has performed exceptionally well.
As Tuesday came to a close they knew at least this much: the question of their playoff contention was left open for at least a few more nights.
“We feel like we’re playing good baseball and we’re just kind of taking everyday as it comes,” Clippard said. “That’s all we can do. We feel very confident in how we’re playing and we’ll take it from there. Who knows what’s going to happen.”