Over the course of the Washington Nationals’ 10-game trip to the west coast, offense was hard to come by. Their wins likely left large swaths of the fanbase gnawing at their fingernails. Their losses seemed an exhibition of where their biggest weaknesses resided.
Even when they had a lead, generating enough offense to expand it and give their pitchers some cushion to work with often proved a Hurculean task. It led their manager to grow gray stubble on his face, vowing not to shave until his team hit, perhaps at the protestations of his wife, Susan. It led their third base coach to send left fielder Tyler Moore into a violent collision at home plate with a risky decision in the fourth, knowing how scarce the runs have been.
But in the fifth inning Friday night, something shifted. In a 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals exhibited some of those signs early, scratching out a run here or there to keep pace, but broke out with a four-run fifth.
It was the first time since April 25 the Nationals have scored as many as four runs in an inning.
“Our offense has really been down,” said manager Davey Johnson. “About 25 percent of our lineup has really been struggling. Along with some other guys at times.
“We just haven’t been the kind of offensive club I know we’re capable of being. Today was a big day.”
The night, blustery and cold with a game time temperature of 53 degrees and dropping made the calendar seem as if it was telling a lie when it read May 24.
It was perfect for Jordan Zimmermann, the Wisconsin native who spends his offseasons going ice fishing. Neither a stiff neck, nor a bases-loaded jam in the fifth, deterred the Nationals’ ace right-hander from tossing seven innings and allowing just two earned runs. He was pulled a bit early, for him, with his neck stiffening in the cold, but expected it to be a non-issue by Saturday.
“I think the fact that none of us knew he had a stiff neck probably says a lot right there,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “That doesn’t surprise me. He’s going out there regardless, and his confidence is growing every start, and I love watching him.”
The Nationals learned before the game that second baseman Danny Espinosa had been playing with a break in his right wrist for more than five weeks. While the hope is that Espinosa will only miss a handful of games with the injury, the starting role at second base is Steve Lombardozzi’s for the time being.
When Lombardozzi came to the plate in the fifth inning, the Nationals had just taken a one-run lead on a triple by LaRoche and an RBI-single by Kurt Suzuki. With Suzuki on third and left fielder Tyler Moore standing on first, Lombardozzi looked out at the field knowing this was exactly the kind of situation the Nationals have struggled in this season.
He laced a two-run double to the right center field gap.
“I knew (Phillies right-hander Kyle Kendrick) had to come at me,” Lombardozzi said. “He was in the hole (2-0). But again, I knew, Jordan’s on deck so I’m looking for something that I can drive… I was just setting myself and staying ready to look for something in a small zone that I could drive, and I got something I was able to hit.”
Lombardozzi and Moore were two of the biggest reasons for the Nationals’ ability to sustain a high level of play when some of their best players went down with injuries in 2012. They stepped in seamlessly, and maintained that success when their roles were later reduced.
This season, it has been more of a struggle. The two entered Friday night’s game hitting a combined .178.
Lombardozzi was 3-for-4 and drove in two. Moore reached base three times and scored.
“I know I’m not swing the bat good and haven’t done it all year but just those small sparks kind of gets your confidence up and kind of gets you going,” Moore said, coming out fine from the collision at home plate with Phillies catcher Erik Kratz. “I know I’m not a .120 hitter. It eventually is going to turn around.”
“With Espinosa out, for Lombo to do what he did, and to score five runs, we’ve been kind of stuck on none or one or two,” Johnson said. “So that was big. Big shot in the arm for the offense.”
The Nationals hope that Jayson Werth will be back in about 10 days. They’re keeping their fingers crossed that the pain will dissipate in Espinosa’s right wrist in short order and he’ll bring his ability at the plate back up to where they expect. They’re optimistic their offensive ineffectiveness will be forgotten in a few weeks.
For now, they’ll go with what they’ve got. Lombardozzi will continue to play second. Moore is expected to get more consistent at-bats in Werth’s place in the outfield. Maybe they’ll return to the form of last season.
For one night, it was fun for their teammates to watch them aid the cause.
“It’s great to see any teammate have a big day, but you’ve got guys who’ve got to sit and watch us play the majority of the time,” LaRoche said. “(Chad Tracy) hits a big homer the other night, it’s huge for all of us.
“We love it for those guys because they support us the nine out of 10 nights they’re not playing, they’re out there backing us up. And on the other side, we’re having some injuries. Last year it was the same thing, and those guys stepped in and they were a big part of it… We’ve got a good lineup, but not good enough to have a few guys out and nobody step in. Tonight was big. Hopefully (Espinosa’s) all right, get Jayson back (soon). In the meantime we’ve got some pretty good replacements.”