SAN FRANCISCO — There came a point Monday night, as the chill began to nip at them and they pulled on their hooded sweatshirts for the first time in what seemed like a year, that one was left to wonder what other shows of dominance the Washington Nationals could pull off in this deliriously charmed season.
The pundits talk of their chances at postseason glory hinging on the eventual shutdown of ace Stephen Strasburg. And yet the Nationals have rolled through the second half finding ways to make each victory more resoundingly authoritative than the last, often on the four days Strasburg isn't pitching, just like Monday.
The Nationals lost for the first time in a week on Sunday. On Monday night they beat the first-place San Francisco Giants 14-2 to hand them their worst defeat of the season. They took a hammer to Ryan Vogelsong, the National League's ERA leader, and did not stop banging it until the final out.
They matched the largest margin of victory in Nationals history, broke a record for hits inside the notoriously pitcher-friendly AT&T Park with 21 and moved to 5½ games up on the Atlanta Braves in the National League East to match the largest divisional lead the Nationals have ever had since relocating to D.C.
In the coldest conditions they've played in since April, they kept each other warm by repeatedly gathering at the near end of the dugout for high-fives as one contributor after the next returned to the dugout with another run.
"I think everyone was top-stepping it the whole time," said left-hander Gio Gonzalez who was superb for 6⅔ innings of work in a strong showing his first start after a complete game effort. "You could just feel this energy inside the dugout. Everyone was pulling for everyone."
They've amassed plenty of wins this season, including 11 in their last 13 games. This seemed to be more than that. It seemed like a step directly toward October.
"This is the time of year where it can go one way or the other," said Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth, who was a late scratch with a sore right ankle and will receive an MRI on Tuesday.
"You see what's happening around the league, this is the time of year. We've played through a hot summer, and we're right where we need to be. We're poised."
The Nationals scored seven runs in a third inning that saw 12 batters come to the plate, Gonzalez strike out twice and Adam LaRoche's bases-loaded walk open a dam that would continue to pour out runs for the next three frames. Roger Bernadina, subbing for Werth, was 4-for-6. Kurt Suzuki was 3-for-6.
Even when their lead was so large it seemed impossible the Giants would recover, the Nationals were still running out ground balls, taking the extra base and pounding relentlessly toward the 27th out.
Ryan Zimmerman, who was 3-for-5, tagged from first base to second on a fly-out to center field with the Nationals up 8-0. Bryce Harper moved from first to third in the fifth on a routine ground out to second base with the Giants' defense shifted to the right side against LaRoche. Danny Espinosa, 4-for-6 with the game's only home run, hustled down the line to beat out a double play in the ninth inning with the Nationals up by 12 runs.
"If you don't continue to push, an eight-run ballgame doesn't mean it's out of reach," Espinosa said. "You just continue to play the game the right way without showing the other team up."
Ten days ago, the Nationals beat the Miami Marlins 7-4 in the opener of a doubleheader and manager Davey Johnson mentioned later that he'd chafed watching his runners not move up when it appeared the Marlins were not holding them on any longer. The tying run got into the on-deck circle that game and Johnson's message to his team was clear: That can't happen.
"I never want my team to ever quit competing and I don't expect the team we're playing to ever quit competing," Johnson said Monday. "It's a losing attitude when you take things for granted.
"The people that dictate well 'We'll play behind in the third inning,' and think we're going to quit competing they're sadly mistaken. They can come after me, but my players are going to keep competing. I've been down that road. And clubs that are losing clubs, that's the way they want to play: You quit trying so we can catch up. I don't buy into it. End of story."
Each time the Nationals have faced the Giants this season it's been billed as a match-up of two first-place teams. This one was a pitchers duel between Gonzalez and Vogelsong, but that was quickly squashed. And in the four games they've played thus far, including a three-game sweep in D.C., the Nationals have hardly given the Giants a chance.
Instead, they just kept rolling.
"(We have to) stay humble, stay grounded, get better each day and not get caught up in what we've done," Zimmerman said. "There's still a long, long ways to go and a lot of season left. We have to continue to get better each day and learn from the mistakes we make. Hopefully at the end of the year, we'll be where we want to be."
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