PHILADELPHIA — Early Wednesday evening, as the thick humid air settled over Citizens Bank Park, Davey Johnson stood behind the cage as his team took batting practice and watched the balls crack off the barrels of their bats. He watched, and he thought there was a unique focus about his hitters on this day. He watched, and he thought they were taking their practice hacks with a purpose.
On the mound for the Philadelphia Phillies Wednesday night was Cliff Lee. The book on him is simple: it’s going to be in the strike zone, often on the inside part of it, but good luck hitting it. The Nationals had scoured video of Lee, coupling it with their own vast experience against him, and they had little doubt about what Lee would attempt to do in an effort to keep their losing skid rolling.
They also knew, even before their 5-1 victory that moved them back to three games above the .500 mark and five games behind the Atlanta Braves, that they had to take advantage of the few ways there were to beat Lee.
Hitting four home runs — back-to-back shots from Anthony Rendon and Wilson Ramos in the fifth, and back-to-back shots from Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth in the sixth — is certainly one of them.
“Sometimes we come into batting practice and we look like we try to hit everything to right field,” Johnson said. “Today we were hitting everything on the rooftops in left.
“We knew who was out there and we knew he was gonna come in on us. Throw the fastball and come at us. The guys approached him that way and that was a great way to approach him.”
On the mound for the Washington Nationals Wednesday night was Gio Gonzalez. The book on him is evolving. An electric left-hander who used to carry around the knock that he’d get too emotional and too wild to develop into an ace, Gonzalez has been among the most consistent and effective performers the Nationals have this season.
He steeled himself for the matchup. With Lee on the other side, he knew runs would be at a premium.
Lee’s success, established and well known, comes from the fact that he is able to do so many aspects of his job exceptionally well. Close to chief among them is his ability to keep the ball inside the ballpark.
Even working within the often hitter-friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park, Lee entered Wednesday’s game averaging 0.6 home runs per nine innings this season. In his career, he has allowed less than one home run per nine innings.
He allowed four in the span of eight batters Wednesday night, each swing slightly different, each pitch slightly different, each result strikingly similar.
Rendon and Zimmerman hit 0-2 pitches, the rookie second baseman’s coming on an inside fastball he was able to sneak his hands inside of and send out so quickly it smashed into the face of a fan in the first row. Ramos hit a 1-0 fastball off the end of his bat, shooting it to right field. Werth clobbered a first-pitch cutter.
“Cliff, there’s no real surprise what he does,” Zimmerman said. “He kind of just comes at you. A couple of those home runs were with two strikes, mine was with two strikes. He kind of made a mistake and other than those few pitches he was pretty good.”
“Those kind of pitchers like to throw strikes a lot,” Ramos said. “They’re natural to throw strikes… Those pitchers like that they’re aggressive with us. We have to be aggressive with them.”
The rarity of what they’d done in hitting four home runs off Lee, would’ve been enough to put them in select company. Lee had given up four homers in a game on only two other occasions in his career: once in 2010 against the Baltimore Orioles, as a member of the Texas Rangers, and once in 2012 against the Milwaukee Brewers. But he had never given up back-to-back home runs multiple times in a game, let alone in back-to-back innings.
By the time Zimmerman’s ball sailed into the left center field seats, Lee’s reaction had gone from muted rubbing of the ball to an expletive outburst while he did it.
“That’s what you have to do with him,” Johnson said. “You can’t let him jam you. He pitches inside a lot, uses his fastball, goes right after you. That’s what I was really pleased with, the way we approached him.”
Equally as pleasing for the Nationals was the fact that Gonzalez continued to prove that the Nationals’ top three starters remain among the best trio in the game. With seven innings of one-run baseball, pitching his way out of multiple jams, Gonzalez lowered his ERA to 3.03.
Since the month of April ended, Gonzalez has pitched to a 2.18 mark. He has not lost since May 27.
When Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann or Gonzalez starts for them, the Nationals — with all of their offensive warts — are 34-20. When they do not, the Nationals are 13-24.
“I think the main three guys who everyone talks about have been really good all year,” Zimmerman said. “Gio a little bit (rocky) at the beginning but the numbers at the beginning of the season are always inflated, both good and bad. I think what you’ve seen from Gio over the last two months is more what we expect from him and I’m sure what he expects from himself.”