- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 17, 2014

As the losses piled up and the division deficit continued to grow, the 2013 Nationals showed signs of overexertion. Every game became a must-win and every at-bat was suddenly critical. The burden was visible.

On Saturday night, different circumstances led to a different result. Sitting comfortably atop the National League East in the midst of a substantial winning streak, the Nationals weren’t fazed by a three-run deficit entering the bottom of the eighth inning. They tied the game in the eighth and won it in walk-off fashion, 4-3, as Wilson Ramos skipped a double over the right-field fence.

With the win, Washington pushed its league-leading winning streak to five. At 68-53, the Nationals own the best record in the National League and lead Atlanta by six games in the division.

“We got a lot of heart,” said outfielder Bryce Harper, who scored the winning run. “We come in every single day trying to win ballgames, trying to win series and keep in first. That’s the biggest thing.”

There was no single player or moment that allowed the Nationals to overcome another rocky start by Gio Gonzalez, as well as a stellar performance by Pirates starter Jeff Locke.

Craig Stammen worked three scoreless innings of relief. Rookie Michael Taylor made his first appearance as a pinch-hitter and drew a walk to start the eighth-inning rally. Kevin Frandsen drove in one run. Adam LaRoche tied the game with a two-run homer. And Ramos brought home Harper, who walked to lead off the ninth. The common thread was confidence.

“I’ve said it all along: this team is relentless,” Frandsen said. “No matter if we’re eight runs down, guys still grind out at-bats. … With our type of offense, one swing can get you back in it, and Rochey did that.” 

Manager Matt Williams said the Nationals haven’t changed their approach all season, regardless of whether they have been ahead in the standings or behind. Frandsen said you can’t afford to let the standings affect you at all.

But LaRoche admitted it is easier to build momentum when the season is going well.

“It’s a little easier to stay relaxed late in the ballgame when you’re down,” he said. “Those games when you go out and it’s must-win, do-or-die, it can be tough to find [momentum]. So yeah, when you’re on a streak, when you’ve got a little lead in the division, it’s easier to go relax and play and not get too uptight late in games.”

Such was the case in the eighth Saturday, when the Nationals toggled between in and out of control. Taylor scored on Frandsen’s flare to shallow right field, which also put two base runners aboard with no outs. But then Rendon grounded into a double play, and the rally nearly fizzled.

That’s when LaRoche stepped in, took one pitch and deposited a second in the Nationals’ bullpen in right field. Drew Storen, who was warming up, nearly caught the ball before it hit the ground. It was LaRoche’s fifth home run in 10 games.

“We go from two and a half hours of having pretty much no momentum, nothing really going that whole game, to all of it coming at once,” LaRoche said.

The Nationals now have five walk-off wins this season, matching their total from last year. Two of those wins have come in the past nine games, including Harper’s solo homer in the 13th inning against the Mets on Aug. 7.

“They feel like they’re always in the game,” Williams said. “We’ve got some guys that can hit the ball over the fence. We’ve got good situational hitters, guys that draw walks. And if you have that kind of team, then you can get back into a game. It hasn’t changed since Day One.”