Win four in a row, and the qualifiers are still within easy reach. That kind of a streak can come with one good series, possibly coupled with a win on the front or back end, and doesn't do much to make the skeptics take notice.
It's when the streak reaches five or six that suggestions start to lurk that there might be something more consistent going on. And the way the Washington Nationals pushed their current winning streak to five on Saturday night, it's difficult at this point to deny their young offense is starting to find its way.
Down four runs in the fifth, the Nationals rallied out of a hole created by a shaky night from starter Jason Bergmann, kept the Braves at bay with a bullpen effort that required six of their seven relievers and won with an attack predicated on patience and timely hitting.
The final run of their 10-inning, 9-8 victory over the Braves at Nationals Park was set up with two walks, one of them intentional, against one hit, and delivered by 23-year-old Elijah Dukes, whose development as a hitter might be the single largest catalyst in the five-game streak.
Dukes took a bases-loaded walk from Vladimir Nunez, scoring Anderson Hernandez for the Nationals' win. His 2-for-4, two-walk performance joined his two-homer game on Thursday as Dukes' moments in the spotlight this week, but it showed a different side of the Nationals' budding slugger, one that his teammates are starting to emulate: patience.
“I love walks. That's my motto — a walk is as good as a hit,” Dukes said. “I got two key walks today. It shows that you don't always have to get a hit.”
Dukes' first walk came as part of a five-run fifth that helped neutralize the struggles of Washington's starting pitcher.
Bergmann's night, which followed two decent outings and one grisly one, was dotted with mistakes that had the right-hander out of the game by the middle of the fifth inning.
He is routinely characterized as a fly ball pitcher, and the corollary to that is his susceptibility to home runs. Entering Saturday night, he had surrendered 22 homers, tied for 11th-most in the National League. That total already was up four from last year.
He gave up two more on Saturday, both on behind-in-the-count pitches left high in the strike zone, to Brian McCann and Martin Prado in the fifth inning. The two shots ended a start where Bergmann was up in the zone throughout the third inning, giving up four runs on five hits, including four doubles. At that point, Atlanta had a 6-2 lead.
“When you're going 1-0, 2-0, you can't nibble,” Bergmann said. “It's certainly not the way I have been pitching in the past. Today was not a fun day for me, but our offense is picking up.”
Washington erased the early hole by putting together the big inning it so rarely has managed this season. The Nationals scored five times in the fifth, only the ninth time this year they've put together an inning with five or more runs.
Leadoff hits from Ryan Zimmerman and Lastings Milledge knocked Braves starter Jo-Jo Reyes out of the game, and the Nationals continued the surge against Buddy Carlyle, Reyes' replacement. Ronnie Belliard chimed in with a double, Dukes followed with a walk, and Jesus Flores, who came to the plate without a hit in his last 21 at-bats, drove a ball over center fielder Josh Anderson's head for a bases-clearing double that tied the game at 6.
“It made me earn my confidence again,” Flores said. “Hopefully, I'll keep swinging like tonight. I'm still a little bit hungry to swing at everything, but I will get it.”
Flores would score on a Hernandez single, giving the Nationals a 7-6 lead at the end of the fifth.
The lead grew to 8-6 in the sixth, then shrunk to a run in the seventh on Chipper Jones' solo homer.
It appeared the Braves would take the lead back when Gregor Blanco doubled to right center in the eighth, but after Greg Norton scored, Dukes, Hernandez and Flores snapped off a relay that ended with Flores tagging Anderson at the plate and denying the Braves the go-ahead run.
That defensive play preserved the tie game and set up the chance for Dukes to deliver in extra innings.
Hernandez led off the 10th, coaxing a walk out of a seven-pitch at-bat and moving to second on McCann's passed ball. Cristian Guzman followed by ripping a single that would have won the game if Prado hadn't deflected it off his glove at first base.
But the Braves decided to walk Ryan Zimmerman, a move that momentarily looked like it would pay off.
Lastings Milledge quickly struck out on a diet of breaking balls from Nunez, and Ronnie Belliard hit a hard liner right at Anderson that appeared to catch Hernandez off-guard at third. He tagged up and hesitated, unsure whether he would be able to beat the throw, and decided to retreat as Anderson relayed to the infield.
“It was too close,” Hernandez said. “I couldn't take that chance.”
The extra caution was vindicated when Dukes resisted the temptation to uncork one of his thunderous swings in hopes of being the hero. He stretched Nunez to an eight-pitch at-bat and took a low slider for ball four, thumping his chest as Hernandez finally came home with the winning run.
“He had a lot of breaking balls, so I figured he'd try to attack me the same way,” Dukes said. “That's the thing. They know I can hit a fastball, so they try to go breaking balls. I'll take the walk.”
And the Nationals will take their longest winning streak of the year along for another day.