As the Washington Nationals keep reminding us, it takes a village to earn a playoff berth. Consider their just-completed series split with the visiting Atlanta Braves. It started out horrifically, with a blown 9-0 lead — the biggest in franchise history — in the first game and a 4-0 loss in the second. But the Nats lived to tell about it thanks to major contributions from such unlikely sources as John Lannan (late of the Syracuse Chiefs), Roger Bernadina (a mere 16-for-his-last-31 at the plate) and Sandy Leon (one of five catchers they’ve used this season).
Indeed, if the Nationals reach the playoffs, they’ll probably look back on the past weekend with a certain fondness. This, after all, is where it could have begun to go ker-blooey — with Stephen Strasburg fiddling and diddling his way to an early exit Friday night and the Nats, after being blanked in the opener of Saturday’s doubleheader, having to turn to the exiled Lannan in the nightcap to try to salvage something from the series.
It was the first of probably several Moments of Truth this season, and the Nationals, to their credit, didn’t blink. They rallied behind Lannan’s seven strong innings and Bernadina’s go-ahead hit to win Game 3 and battered the Braves 9-2 in Sunday’s finale with the help of, among other things, a two-run double by Leon. Thus did they keep their 3½-game cushion over Braves intact and their soaring self-confidence from losing cabin pressure.
Ryan Zimmerman, who continued to lay waste to pitchers with two more home runs, Nos. 13 and 14, put it as well as anybody. “For us to come back and win both these games was huge,” he said. “It shows what kind of team this is.”
To which Johnson added: “If I was [the Braves], I’d feel deflated, because you want to pick up some ground. We don’t play them but six more times.”
You tend to forget: Many of the Nats have never been in this situation before — not at the major-league level, at least. As Lannan said before jumping on a plane back to Syracuse, “I’ve never been on a first-place team. I’ve never been where it really meant something.”
So it wouldn’t have been any great shock if, inexperienced as they are, the Nationals had let Friday’s 11-10 nightmare haunt them for 40 more hours and allowed Atlanta to leave town with the National League East lead. But they dug in their cleats, got a string of fine starts from Edwin Jackson, Lannan and Ross Detwiler, and ended the weekend no worse off than they were at the outset. It’s called damage control, and any serious contender has to be able to exercise it.
Any serious contender also has to get help from anybody and everybody on the roster, even passersby, if it wants to be playing in October (to return to our original theme). The Nats keep receiving that assistance, one of the main reasons they’ve stayed atop the division for so long — two months and counting. If it isn’t Leon, it’s Johnatan Solano. If it isn’t Lannan, it’s Mike Gonzalez, who didn’t join the club until May 8. And we haven’t even talked about Danny Espinosa, whose ability to slide over from second to shortstop — and do it seamlessly — should enable the team to get by for a spell without Ian Desmond. (Desi sat out Sunday with a torn oblique and is headed to the disabled list for perhaps a month.)
“He’s been doing everything for us,” Espinosa said. “You don’t replace an All-Star. But I’ll go out there and do my best every single day.”
That should be plenty good enough, inasmuch as Danny has stroked 14 hits in the past eight games to hike his batting average to .250, the highest it’s been all season. The Nationals also don’t lose much in the field or on the basepaths when he’s at short, though he might be hard-pressed to come through in the clutch as often as Desmond has.
Fortunately for the Nats, “We’ve been through a lot of adversity this year,” Zimmerman said. Several key players, including Zim, have missed large blocks of time, but the club has been able to ride out the bumps and stay in front in the NL East.
Still, the grind goes on: 94 games down, 68 to go. And for much of September the Nationals figure to be without Strasburg, who’s being limited to 160 innings as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. If the first four months are any indication, the Nats’ will be relying heavily on their “village” — the collection of talent assembled by Mike Rizzo — in their push for the playoffs. Whether they get there is anyone’s guess, but they showed over the weekend they’re a determined bunch, one that can take a punch, clear their heads and get back to business.