The Washington Nationals won again on Wednesday night. Two innings in, they lost their ace to a 72-minute rain delay. Six innings in, they lost their slim lead.
But in this season in which so little has gone right, or at least they way so many expected for them, the Nationals may finally be hitting their stride.
Jayson Werth, their highest-paid player who is having perhaps the best season of his career, came through again. Ian Desmond, who is following up his breakout season by reiterating just how talented he is, did the same. Craig Stammen, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano combined to allow one run over seven innings.
In beating the Miami Marlins 4-3, the Nationals notched their 13th victory in their last 18 games, and their seventh in the last eight.
“It’s starting to snowball a little bit,” Werth said on the night he hit his 20th home run of the season to re-tie the game at three. “You can feel it. It’s too bad that we waited this long to put it together.
“We may be down, but we’re not out. We’re giving ourselves a chance here. We just need to keep playing the type of ball we’ve been playing. We’re capable of playing to that type of level. We’re not out of it.”
Their standing in the playoff picture did not budge. The Cincinnati Reds put a hurting on the St. Louis Cardinals, so the Nationals did not gain a game there. The Atlanta Braves have made it little but a formality before they sew up the division, but they won, too, so the Nationals did not gain a game there.
By the time it was over, the dulcet tones from the radio broadcast echoed throughout the near-empty concourses. Swaths of empty seats expanded all around the ballpark. Individual shouts of encouragement from fans could be heard, traveling from one section to another with ease.
“There were enough people there who stuck it out,” said Storen, who allowed a base hit and a walk to open the seventh inning, was met with a visit from pitching coach Steve McCatty, and gave up a breathtakingly hard foul ball to Giancarlo Stanton before coming back to get three straight outs.
“I can’t say I would’ve done the same. Pretty impressive.”
The smallest crowd of the season — only 24,394 bought tickets — grew more sparse as the innings went on. Rain that lasted more than an hour drove away many of them. Those who were left bore witness to a slow game with only spurts of action.
“It was a nice ballgame, since we won it,” said manager Davey Johnson, who usually sets the limit at one hour on rain delays before he deems it too long for his pitcher to return.
When the rain came in the bottom of the second inning, the hope was that they wouldn’t lose Stephen Strasburg to it. But after several sessions of light catch, Strasburg’s back began to stiffen after about 45 minutes, so Johnson decided that was that for his right-hander, who only threw 22 pitches. He could return on Sunday, if the team decides to push him up a day.
“I just expect (rain) every time,” Strasburg said. “Some crazy weather is going to be going on everyday I pitch.
“It just got to a point where the rain was still coming down and we decided to go to Craig. It’s 100 percent normal. It’s a combination of it being September and us being athletes and getting hot and sitting down for a while. It could happen to anybody. I’m not 20 years old anymore.”
That left Stammen to quarterback the bullpen effort. Save for a two-run sixth from Ryan Mattheus in his return from Triple-A, they did it remarkably well.
Moments after Stanton had tied the game with a bullet of a home run to straightaway center field and Jeff Mathis had doubled home the go-ahead run in the sixth, Werth did his best Stanton impression. Leading off the bottom of the frame, just as Stanton had in the top, Werth crushed one to nearly the same spot as the Marlins’ right fielder had.
“I think his went a little further,” Werth said with a smile. “But mine was higher.”
When the Marlins chose to walk Werth the next inning and put two runners on for Desmond, the shortstop, who was 3-for-4 on the night and scored in the second, slapped a single to left to put the Nationals back on top with a lead that would stick.
“It was probably the right move,” Desmond said of the decision to walk Werth. “When I was up there I thought they were going to walk both of us to get to (Adam LaRoche) with nobody warming and a lefty-lefty situation.
“I don’t even know if I hit a strike, to be honest, but fortunately it got the job done.”
For another night, the Nationals could rest easy knowing that was indeed true.
“We’ve got to continue to play like this the rest of the way,” Werth said. “And that’s fine. It is what it is. We’ve kind of made the bed, so we’re going to have to sleep in it. But we’ve got a chance. We’ve got a heartbeat.”