NEW YORK — For the most part, the Washington Nationals have remained steadfast these past few weeks in knowing what they’ve got to do. Their objective is simple: they must win. As manager Davey Johnson so bluntly put it on Tuesday night with 18 games to go, “If we win out, I like our chances.”
Every loss brings the end of relevancy in their season that much closer and gives them one more hurdle to leap in an already improbable — but not impossible — task.
But there are times, when they play well and they feel good about themselves, when glimpses at the out-of-town scoreboard are inevitable. The other four starting pitchers, for example, might’ve noticed from the bench during the Nationals’ 6-3 victory over the New York Mets on Tuesday night, that old friend Edwin Jackson and the Cubs were blowing out the Cincinnati Reds.
Again, there is hope.
“The almighty loss column,” as Johnson put it on Tuesday, separates them from the Reds, who currently possess the second wild card spot, by five games.
In the last 30 games the Nationals are 21-9, playing perhaps their best baseball of the year while they glance up at the scoreboard every now and then and wonder if it isn’t too late.
“(The talent’s) there, there’s no doubt,” said right fielder Jayson Werth — the man who may well win the National League batting title, will surely find his name among those on the Most Valuable Player ballot and went 3-for-4 with two doubles and a homer to lead the Nationals on Tuesday.
“We just, we kind of waited around too long… You can sit here and talk about all that stuff all day long and point tons of fingers of what went wrong or what you think went wrong but it doesn’t change anything. This team’s got fight, there’s no doubt about it. We just might’ve been a little too late. We’ll see. I’m not giving up. That’s for sure.”
But each acknowledgement of that hope, each moment in which they recognize that stranger things have happened than a team that is six back with 18 games left sneaking into the playoffs, is also accompanied by a nod toward their remaining issues.
They do not always pitch as consistently as they should. Jordan Zimmermann struggled with his command in five-plus innings on Tuesday, hanging on to a two-run advantage until the sixth when back-to-back-to-back hits opened the frame and cut the Nationals’ lead to 4-3. But the bullpen then posted four scoreless innings from Craig Stammen, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano — who picked up his 40th save of the year.
Their offense, absent for much of the early part of the season, has come alive of late behind Werth, Wilson Ramos, the surging Denard Span and the suddenly-slugging Ryan Zimmerman.
Werth drove in two and scored two on a night Ramos added his 46th RBI of the season and threw out two baserunners trying to steal. Their bench, too, is producing on a higher level — evidenced most recently by Scott Hairston’s two-run insurance homer in the ninth on Tuesday.
And still, they have lost games they shouldn’t have, to teams they shouldn’t have, during this successful stretch.
“We still have a few little guys who need to get squared away,” Johnson said. “We still have a few issues we need to get better this last month. All these games are important and you never take anything for granted.
“It’s not that we weren’t trying (early on). The effort’s always been here. We just had a few little cracks in the dam and we weren’t able to patch them as quick as I would’ve liked.”
But as they assembled to shake hands late Tuesday night, when their sixth victory in eight games on this road trip was complete, they did so knowing once again that their chances are not yet entirely kaput. There was more than one player who was acutely aware of what had gone on in the Reds’ game, of where exactly they were at the close of business on the day.
“I’m very aware,” Werth said. “I’ve been aware for a while.”
“We’re finally playing the way we thought we were going to play the entire season,” added Stammen. “Hopefully it’s not too late. We’re definitely beating the teams now that we’re supposed to beat. It’ll come later this month when we’ll see if we can beat the teams that are a little bit better.”
“You’ve just got to put the blinders on. Every season’s different, and you never know how this one’s going to end. We still have a fighting chance, and as long as we have a chance, we’re just worried about winning that game that day.”