The Detroit Tigers rolled into Washington this week, having steamrolled all comers in their previous 10 games. Good teams, bad teams, mediocre teams, it seemed to matter little to the reigning American League champions. Their lineup is perhaps the most feared in the game, their rotation is stacked with talent. They are in many ways what the Washington Nationals are built to become.
The series, delayed one day by a rainout, left time to ponder the question of whether this matchup of preseason World Series favorites might present itself again on a cold night in late October.
The Tigers were playing well enough early to warrant the hype, but the Nationals were still feeling their way out of an inconsistent April and were eager to prove that they stacked up.
Two games later, with a sweep of the abbreviated series capped by a 5-4 Nationals victory, there was perhaps only more fuel for the postseason prediction fire.
"That's a really good team over there," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I don't think anyone would be surprised if they were coming out of that league or if they're in there until the end."
"They're built for the playoffs just like we are," said Tigers catcher Alex Avila. "I thought the last two games were really good games. It'll be interesting to see how the rest of the season goes for the both of us."
Both teams brushed off any talk of the World Series, even though they knew what the oddsmakers said.
Such discussion only matters "if we both win," Avila said.
"It's too early for me to even think about that stuff," added Nationals manager Davey Johnson.
But maybe they will.
The Nationals' victory was their sixth in the past seven games as they improved to 19-15.
Their defense has been cleaner. Their offense, often dormant in the first month of the season, has shown signs of emergence and is averaging more than 3 ½ runs per game in May. Their pitching is getting more consistent.
They're finally playing the way they promised they could when they tried to explain an April that included more losses than victories.
"I think everyone in this room will tell you that we didn't play great baseball at the beginning of the season," said Zimmerman, who combined with Adam LaRoche for five hits on the day — perhaps the most positive signs for the Nationals in a series filled with them.
"Defensively we were sloppy, offensively we were very inconsistent. Even the pitchers weren't that great at the beginning. But you're going to go through things like that in a season and when it happens at the beginning, obviously it's a little more glaring than if it were to happen in July or August."
That includes the performances by right-hander Dan Haren, who continued to distance himself from a rocky introduction to the District.
After a dominant eight-inning performance against the Braves last week, Haren came away from his six innings of work Thursday with a sour taste in his mouth about the two-out, three-run home run he surrendered to pinch hitter Matt Tuiasosopo to bring the Tigers within a run in the sixth.
But, buoyed by five runs from his offense through just two innings, it was not a mistake that cost the Nationals the game. And on a day when he felt himself searching for his best stuff, that may be the difference as they round into form.
"It was a really big win for us," Haren said. "And hopefully we keep the momentum going through the weekend. ... We've come a long way in a week it seems."
Against Doug Fister, the Nationals' first six batters reached base, and they had three runs already in the dugout before they had made two outs. Their onslaught, built largely on singles, included two more runs in the second. They chased Fister, who entered with a 4-0 record and a 2.48 ERA, after three innings.
Their bullpen, overworked early and hardly taxed of late, got three scoreless innings from Ryan Mattheus, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano — who closed it out with his 12th save.
After the Nationals took the first game of the series, they talked about finding themselves. They felt like they were close.
Thursday, as they ushered the Tigers out of Nationals Park, they took another step toward that place.
"That first month, we were all just kind of up in the air about what's going on," LaRoche said. "We couldn't pinpoint it. ... But at no point did you see anybody panic and worry about where we're going to be in three or four months.
"We knew it was a matter of time before this lineup and this staff gets going. And people are just starting to see that. I don't think we've scratched the surface yet."
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