This is how it was supposed to be. Back in April it seemed a near certainty that six months of rolling good times — of majestic home runs, starting pitchers posting zeroes, clean defense and victories — were ahead.
When the Washington Nationals began this season, sweeping the Miami Marlins much the way they did with a 9-0 demolition job on Thursday night, they figured there would’ve been plenty more stretches like the one they’re in now.
Gio Gonzalez went seven scoreless. Bryce Harper (two-run), Jayson Werth (three-run), and Ian Desmond (three run) all homered. Harper’s kicked things off, Werth’s busted it open and Desmond delivered the backbreaker. The Nationals allowed two total baserunners in the game’s seven final innings.
“That was the Nats I remember,” said Gonzalez, who allowed three hits and three walk in seven innings but struck out eight and retired the last 11 he faced.
The Nationals no longer have time to worry about what happened in the previous five months, or to try to figure out why it didn’t go the way so many expected.
With 29 games left, they have a schedule that stacks up favorably for their sprint-to-the-finish ambitions, a 6.5-game deficit to nab the second wild card spot, and eight wins in their last nine games. Sure, 11 of their last 14 wins have come against losing teams, including their last three against the Marlins. But they play their next 16 games against opponents of that variety, and the wins all look the same in the box score.
“There’s plenty of time,” Werth said Thursday night, after bringing his totals on the season to a .329/.406/.540 and cementing himself as a top candidate for the National League Most Valuable Player award. “There’s plenty of time to do a crazy thing.”
“We’re a scary team when we’re going good,” Harper said. “I think everybody knows that. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun this last month.”
Thursday was as much of a throwback to the 2012 version of the Nationals as they’ve had all year. Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Harper, Werth and Desmond combined to go 11-for-18. Their No.’s 2-5 hitters all registered multi-hit games and combined to drive in eight runs.
Gonzalez struggled early, needing 43 pitches to get through the first two innings and allowing all three of his walks in that span.
When he returned to the dugout after the second, he retreated the clubhouse to change out of his sweat-soaked jersey. Rafael Soriano was waiting for him, ready with an observation that he’d noticed Gonzalez’s arm dropping too low and the left-hander rushing his delivery.
Pitching coach Steve McCatty probably had said the same thing, Gonzalez acknowledged, but Soriano’s message got through. Gonzalez allowed only one more runner to reach base, finishing seven innings on 108 pitches.
“If you were to tell me I was going seven, I would have laughed in your face in the second inning,” Gonzalez said. “After (Soriano) said that I made the adjustment and stood tall, pounded the strike zone. It felt like I was just playing catch with (Wilson Ramos).”
Against the Marlins, Harper’s two-run shot in the fourth, which followed a Zimmerman walk, might’ve been enough for the victory. There have certainly been plenty of nights this season in which the Nationals might’ve tried to see if it would.
But two innings later the middle of the order struck again, Werth bringing home Harper and Zimmerman with his shot halfway up the seats in left field. Desmond followed with his in the seventh.
As he made his way off the field, after another night in which his candidacy for the league’s MVP award grew, Werth was asked by a television reporter what he thought about those who think the Nationals’ run may be too little, too late. He paused for a moment and shrugged. “Who cares what those people think?” he said.
“One thing that I preach to everybody: ‘You never take anything for granted,’” manager Davey Johnson said. “When you hit a groundball to short, you never take it for granted he’s going to field it and throw you out. And the same way winning games.
“No matter how many you’re behind, if you take it for granted you can’t catch nobody and you can’t play good, that’s a losing attitude. And I’ve never sensed that attitude here. Strange things happen in this game. All we have to do is keep playing good ball.”