DENVER — As the Washington Nationals season plodded along through its first 10 weeks, each victory brought with it the hope that it could be the start of something. Each loss that has followed, another buzzkill. A halt to any possible winning streak.
But during their agonizing tap dance around mediocrity there always seemed to be something missing. Over the course of the Nationals’ charmed run to the 2012 National League East title, they bludgeoned teams with their offense, dazzled them with their pitching and yes, often, caught the breaks.
Maybe what they lacked this season was a little luck.
And maybe, in a 5-4 series-clinching victory over the Colorado Rockies on Thursday — a game tied when the umpiring crew called Wilton Lopez for back-to-back balks — they shed the last vestiges of their inconsistent start.
“I hate to say it, but the breaks went our way,” said right-handed Craig Stammen, who pitched two scoreless innings in relief of Ross Detwiler, who returned from the disabled list to toss five innings in his first start since May 15.
“Two balks. Their best players (Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki and Dexter Fowler) all got hurt. That’s kind of how last year went. It seemed like everything went our way. Today was like the first day all season I felt like things went our way. Timely hits, we got out of innings, pitching-wise, that were key and we ended up with a win.”
To be sure, in beating the Rockies and shrinking the Atlanta Braves’ lead back to 5½ games — the smallest it’s been all month — the Nationals (33-32) did more than capitalize on the illegal motions of one Rockies pitcher.
Ian Desmond was 4-for-4 to stretch his career-best hitting streak to 15 games, a period in which he’s hitting .403, and drove in the game-winner in the eighth. Ryan Zimmerman clubbed his seventh home run of the season to give the Nationals an early 2-0 lead. And it was his one-out double in the eighth that drove in Roger Bernadina and helped the Nationals take advantage of their game-tying fortune an inning earlier.
“I don’t think we’re at the point in the season, emotionally, where we’re begging (for them to) balk in runs,” Desmond said. “We believe in ourselves and we know they can get it done with the bats. Obviously, it’s nice to catch a break like that but at the same time we’re on base. We’re making him do it.”
Still, the balks couldn’t be overlooked.
“Umpires aren’t going to call something like that to tie up a game unless it’s obvious,” Zimmerman said. “The umpires don’t want to do that. They don’t want to balk home a run. That’s not why they’re out there, and that crew is a really good crew. For them to call that it would’ve had to have been obvious.”
With the Nationals trailing by a run in the seventh inning, Desmond stood on second base when home plate umpire, James Hoye, and second base umpire, Bob Davidson, called Lopez for a balk for starting to go to his glove with his right hand, and then stopping. Three pitches later, Lopez did it again. This time third base umpire Jim Reynolds called it. Nationals manager Davey Johnson said he actually did it three times, though they only called two.
Desmond scored, and the Nationals were given a second life.
“You don’t really get that opportunity too many times, especially at this level,” Zimmerman said. “We had a chance and we had to take advantage of it. Today we did.”
The Nationals were abuzz Wednesday night after Ross Ohlendorf, summoned from the minor leagues, held the Rockies’ offense to two hits through six innings. Maybe that was something they’d needed for a while: a shot in the arm from an unexpected contributor. Maybe, the sense was again, that it’d help key them a bit.
It may be too early to be scoreboard watching with much scrutiny, but the Nationals weren’t oblivious to the fact that the Braves have lost five of their last seven and were dormant on Thursday. Suddenly Atlanta’s lead was down to 5½ games.
As they packed the clubhouse with music blaring and prepared to head to Cleveland for three games, they pondered the idea that maybe this was the start of the run that has eluded them. Maybe the starts and stops would finally, well, stop.
“It’s not easy to win that many games in a row at this level. There’s a reason why that doesn’t happen so much,” Zimmerman said. “But we were talking earlier about how that just hasn’t happened yet this year. And for us as a team right now with things that have gone on and things that have happened, we just need to grind it out, stay where we’re at and stay within striking distance.
“Maybe this is the start of that, where we can run six, seven, eight, nine, 10 games off in a row, or have a good 20-game span. And all of a sudden we’re right back in it.”