SAN FRANCISCO — The Washington Nationals insist there's still a long way to go, even as the days dwindle. That each game, regardless of which authoritative example of the gap between them and the rest of the National League it brings, is just one more step toward their ultimate goal.
They haven't won a pennant or even secured a playoff spot. But as they beat the San Francisco Giants 6-4 on Wednesday to complete an 8-2 road trip, they acknowledged that those goals are coming into view.
In a season filled with first and bests, the Nationals boarded a cross-country flight with another new one: At 41-23 they have the best road record in the majors. Under a pristine pale blue sky, the Nationals sent ace Stephen Strasburg to the mound to complete 10 days of dominance.
"Good teams play just as well on the road as they do at home and we're a good team," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said as music blared in a celebratory clubhouse. "We look at every game as important... They're getting my philosophy: Think about today with an eye on tomorrow. That's as far as we go now."
For a moment Wednesday Danny Espinosa watched the flight of the ball that had just made eardrum-shattering contact with his bat and headed for the right-center field seats at AT&T Park. Then he made his way around the bases and into the dugout in a workmanlike manner, amid the Nationals' usual post-homer fanfare.
There was nothing audacious about his trot, nothing demonstrative about the celebration. A two-run homer that broke a tie was treated the same way they would any other swing. At this point, why stage an over-the-top celebration when the Nationals don't expect to see anything less?
The Giants made noise late, and even brought the 42,133 fans to their feet when Adam LaRoche lost a pop-up in the sun that would have ended the game, but ultimately the NL West leaders were no match for the Nationals. In the six games between the powers this season, the Giants won once.
The Nationals haven't lost a road series since late June and on their tour de force through Houston, Phoenix and the Bay Area, they rarely came close. They are 24-11 since the All-Star break and came away from San Francisco knowing they'd passed an important test.
"It's huge, man," said closer Tyler Clippard, who made LaRoche's drop a moot point by striking out Buster Posey to end the game. "To have a road trip like this is kind of unusual. I feel like in the past we've really struggled on the road... it seems like this year that's the difference. We've played really, really [well] on the road, and we're feeling pretty confident with what's going on right now."
As they have through much of this season, the Nationals found contributors from all corners on the trip. Wednesday was no different. Steve Lombardozzi was 4 for 5 for the second time in the past six games, and Espinosa carried the biggest stick, going 2 for 4 with a double and the decisive home run.
There was only one catch to their big day: The end of the line for this double play combination is near.
Ian Desmond is expected to be activated before Friday's game against the New York Mets, returning another one of the Nationals' biggest bats and best defenders. Desmond, their All-Star shortstop coming off a left oblique strain, will move Espinosa back to second base and Lombardozzi to the utility role he filled for the season's first few months.
The Nationals will be even stronger with Desmond back, but Espinosa and Lombardozzi put an impressive cap on their 25-game run at their natural positions. In addition to sound, often stellar defense, they combined to hit .391 with eight extra-base hits on the road trip.
"They've been really outstanding," Johnson said. "I can't say it enough. They're professional, they've played great defense, and the offense has been great. It's even picked up with Desi out."
They led the Nationals, but they were hardly alone. Washington's offense picked up where it left off against one-time Giants ace Tim Lincecum, tagging him for two runs in the first inning. They chased him after four and tallied 12 hits off Giants pitching.
Strasburg gave those runs back in the second, allowing two walks and a single to open the frame, but that was the only trouble for the Nationals' ace. Once Washington regained a two-run cushion, he didn't allow another runner to second base. His day was done after six innings and 100 pitches, four hits, four walks, seven strikeouts and the two earned runs.
The Nationals smiled and enjoyed win No. 73, looking forward to savoring it on their long ride home, even if they wouldn't fully say just how much it meant.
"We're playing good, and we're feeling good, but baseball's a funny game," Clippard said. "We don't want to take anything for granted, but this was definitely an important road trip for us."
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