A few months ago, the Washington Nationals found themselves running out of ways to explain the things that happened in their baseball games. The things that contributed to far more losses than most expected. They didn’t play well enough to get their share of breaks, and the ones that hung in the balance most often fell swiftly the other way.
And yet there they were on Friday night, in the process of winning their seventh consecutive game — a 6-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies — watching every little thing go right.
A spot starter, stepping in for an ace, guided them. Their cornerstone third baseman clubbed his ninth home run in 11 games. Their 20-year-old outfielder threw two laserbeams from left to nab batters trying to stretch sure base hits into doubles. Wilson Ramos, starting in his 21st consecutive game behind the plate, smashed a homer of his own. Denard Span’s hitting streak reached 24 games. And four of their six runs scored on infield hits.
“When you’re winning games in a row the whole team is doing things that are helping you win,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, whose home run binge continued to bring his season total to 24 after starting the month at 15. “It’s kind of contagious and rubs off on whoever is out there.”
“You can’t get lucky if you don’t swing,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who drove in two with infield hits to third base. “We’ve had our share of people getting lucky against us. You can call it lucky, you can call it whatever you want, but runs are runs.”
By night’s end, as they filed out of the clubhouse and turned their eyes toward another day, their deficit in the race for the second wild card spot had dropped to 4.5 games — the closest they’ve been to a playoff spot since July 11.
“We’ve just got to win,” said Bryce Harper, who earned his 11th and 12th outfield assists of the season by throwing out Freddy Galvis from the left field corner and Carlos Ruiz from the warning track in front of the visitors’ bullpen. The throws not only showcased the immense ability Harper has in his arm, but were pivotal in the game. Both came on leadoff batters, both were followed by hits and certainly could’ve been runs.
“We’ve had an opportunity all year,” Harper said. “We’ve know we’ve had an opportunity all year. A lot of people have doubted us here and there and everywhere we’ve gone. On TV and in the papers, whatever. It doesn’t matter what they think like I said before. Whatever we think in this clubhouse is what we think.”
For two weeks, the Nationals have barreled their way through a schedule setup for them to seize the opportunity for success. And then there it was: the speed bump that might derail them as they came sailing down the road.
Stephen Strasburg was scratched from his start with soreness in his forearm, and the Nationals rescheduled his next start for Sept. 19 against the Miami Marlins.
The move came with an unknown. While the Nationals did their best to alleviate fears of a significant injury for the prized right-hander, the move itself spoke to at least some concern. And hoisted the pressure of continuing the Nationals’ roll onto the shoulders of Ross Ohlendorf, who’d thrown one inning in the last 12 days and learned Thursday evening he’d probably start Friday’s game.
All he did was step in and allow one run over five innings, guiding the Nationals over that bump like an expert driver on his hometown roads.
“Ross has been great for us ever since he’s been here,” Desmond said. “He’s really done an unbelievable job. He’s been a horse out of the bullpen. He’s done some things that not many other guys would do… He’s good at what he does and we respect that, so it’s not a surprise to any of us in here.”
Most of the Nationals players said they hadn’t noticed the out-of-town scoreboard out in right center field that read vital information back to them. “It doesn’t matter if they lose if we don’t win,” said Zimmerman.
And manager Davey Johnson said he didn’t know what the score in the Cincinnati Reds game against the Milwaukee Brewers was when the Nationals game ended.
Informed the Reds were losing, Johnson smiled.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s too bad.”
The televisions in the clubhouse were tuned in, though, and as the Brewers expanded their lead over the Reds in an eventual 5-1 victory, there were more than a few cheers that broke out.
“We control what we can,” said Desmond. “All we’ve got to do is just keep on playing the way we’re playing and what will be will be.”