As Ian Desmond strode toward the batter’s box late Friday night, he looked out at a scoreboard that told the tale of his night. An infield single. A two-run homer that still stood as the winning margin despite it being far from a close game at this point. And a double.
A huge offensive night by any standard, and part of a strong showing from the middle and bottom of the Nationals’ order.
But a triple in this at-bat, he knew, and the Nationals’ 7-3 victory over the Chicago Cubs would forever have a star next to it as the game in which the 27-year-old shortstop joined a small group and hit for the cycle.
“But,” he said. “Third is a long way away.”
“Those kind of things just happen.” Desmond said of the possibility for a cycle, which ended when he made an out for the first time with a ground out to third base in the eighth inning. “You can’t really try to do it. Obviously I wanted to put the barrel on the ball, but you can’t aim. I did know that it was out there but, when we’re winning like that, I just want to get the pitchers back on the field and keep the game moving.”
So Desmond settled for a night in which he was 3-for-4, scored three times and drove in three runs.
And the Nationals? They rolled on with their fifth consecutive victory and seventh in their last eight games as the trounced the Cubs in the opener of this weekend series.
With Jayson Werth headed to the disabled list with a slight hamstring strain, and Bryce Harper sitting for the night after a gruesome procedure to remove an ingrown toenail earlier in the day, the Nationals’ offense was again without some of their biggest bats.
It mattered little. Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Tyler Moore and Kurt Suzuki — the Nationals’ No.’s 3-8 hitters on this night — accounted for all nine of their hits. LaRoche had two, Desmond had three. Espinosa and Suzuki added a two-run double each.
“They’re due to start doing their thing,” manager Davey Johnson said of the middle-to-bottom of the order bats. “It’s big when your three-hole hitter’s out of there and you score a bunch of runs. That’s big.”
For the Nationals, Friday night’s victory will be reflected in the box scores and the standings are simply another win they ticked off on their path to establishing themselves as the power almost everyone expected them to be this season. It was their 20th victory and a game that put them five games over the .500 mark.
But just as the Nationals’ early losses were concerning more for how they were coming — often with sloppy play to go along with inconsistent pitching and offense — their wins of late should be encouraging for the same reasons. The defense has been crisp. The offense is coming from multiple places, and sometimes different ones each night.
And the pitching, capped by Ross Detwiler’s 6 2/3 innings of work in which he allowed just two runs, walked none and worked around eight hits while mixing his curveball in among his usual dizzying array of fastballs, is on a roll reminiscent of the 2012 season.
Since the calendar turned to May, the Nationals’ starters have compiled a 2.85 ERA — and the team has lost only once.
“All facets we’re playing better baseball,” said Werth, who’s been relegated to spectator for much of the team’s current run.
Werth pointed to Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh as the turning point for the Nationals, when left-hander Gio Gonzalez struggled early, allowed a leadoff home run and loaded the bases. Then he escaped the jam. The Nationals haven’t lost since.
“That’s when I really noticed the whole team was into it,” Werth said. “The energy was there. The excitement. That play right there was kind of a turning point. And ever since then we’ve kinda hit stride.”
After Craig Stammen’s 2 1/3 innings of work to nail the victory down, the Nationals celebrated on the field Friday night for the fifth consecutive time. They streamed their celebratory music through the clubhouse speakers.
A week ago they were on the verge of sitting through a manager-called team meeting that featured a reminder to simply relax. Friday night they were about as far from that as possible.
“I like the talent,” Johnson said. “We’re playing like we’re capable.”