Early Sunday morning, as his team prepared for a long day of baseball after a long first two-plus months of the season, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson gathered his players in the clubhouse.
He wanted to tell them a story. He wanted to get them to relax for a little while. To forget the issues that had brought them to a low-water mark, two games under .500, on Saturday night, and to urge them to be aggressive. To play the way he knew they could.
"Just cheered 'em up," Johnson said.
Anthony Rendon summed the brief speech up succinctly: "Swing," he said.
Behind the latest dominant pitching performance from right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, the Nationals' pillar of consistency, and with an offensive outburst the likes of which they hadn't seen in weeks, they did. In a 7-0 beating of the Minnesota Twins on Sunday afternoon, the Nationals took the first game of a doubleheader and put another game into the category of "possible streak starter."
"This was kind of a fun day," Johnson said after his team had scored more than three runs for the first time in almost two weeks. "That's what I'm talking about. That's what I like to see. We were more aggressive. We went after [Twins starter Scott Diamond]. It was fun."
These are the games upon which the Nationals have built the hope that their season will not be lost to mediocrity and defined by unfulfilled expectations. That the inconsistency that has plagued their offense — and their team — from the outset this season will soon fade away, and the roller coaster ride will halt.
It could have gone awry on multiple occasions.
Around 11 a.m., bench coach Randy Knorr approached Jeff Kobernus and told the natural second baseman and converted outfielder that, with Denard Span resting a sore right foot in the first game, he'd be getting his first major league start in center field.
"I knew there was a chance," Kobernus said. "But I just try to be ready every day."
Then, as Johnson gathered the team for his talk, Zimmermann sat with a heating pad on his neck — a fairly minor treatment to work out some tightness. But the manager fretted.
"Right away he asked if I was going to be all right," Zimmermann said. "I said I would be fine."
In seven shutout innings, Zimmermann was once again more than simply "fine." In lowering his ERA on the season to 2.00 and his WHIP to a minuscule 0.89, Zimmermann allowed the Twins just two hits. He walked two but never saw a runner advance past second base.
He pitched around an error by Rendon, who lost in the sun a pop fly that would've ended the third inning, and another by Ryan Zimmerman in the fifth, and struck out eight. His pitch count seemed somewhat untenable at 60 pitches through three innings as the Twins worked hard to foul off a significant number of them. The right-hander responded with a five-pitch fourth inning and needed just 29 more to get into the seventh.
"It's pretty crazy that he can go out there and just do that every time," Rendon said of Zimmermann.
And the Nationals' offense rapped out 14 hits.
It was their second-highest hit total of the season — and the first time they'd walked more than twice in a game since May 25. Seven of their nine starters had at least one hit.
Led by three from Ian Desmond, whose third was a two-run single laced to left, two from Rendon, who drove in three, and the first two hits of Kobernus' career, the Nationals had their most productive game in weeks.
There was more work to be done. Another game to be played before they could bid adieu to the Twins and, they hoped, take a possible .500 record into a nine-game road trip that begins in Colorado on Tuesday.
But it was a start. They hoped, perhaps at long last, that it was the start.
"I'll have [a meeting] every day if we get 14 hits and seven runs," Johnson said. "To me, confidence comes by attacking, being aggressive. Sometimes, when we don't swing the bats, we look like we're a little passive. I liked our approach today. We were more in attack mode. I like that."
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