The final three innings of Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Orioles, the last third of the ultimate game in a brutal homestand for the Washington Nationals, seemed an unlikely place for the team to pick itself up, especially by correcting all the things it had done wrong in the past 10 games.
Adam Dunn, in the midst of an offensive slump, smoked a two-run homer to center in the sixth inning, only to see Adam Jones hit a similar shot off Shairon Martis in the seventh that flipped the Nationals’ one-run lead back to a single-run margin for the Orioles.
So when Dunn fouled off a hanging slider from Jamie Walker with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh, there was little recent history to suggest he would respond.
But when Walker came back with another slider, this one a hair lower than the one Dunn missed, he changed the game.
His seventh-inning grand slam put the Nationals up 8-5, the score they wound up winning by when Joe Beimel and Joel Hanrahan set down the last six batters of the game. And at the end of a 2-9 homestand in which the Nationals’ offense went somnolent for the first time this year, Dunn’s blast served as a reminder the group is potent enough to bounce back at any time.
“We’re getting great pitching now, and it seemed like our offense is struggling,” Dunn said. “You can’t stay hot offensively for a whole year. Hopefully we kind of had our bad run, and we’ll start swinging the bats a little better.”
The win doesn’t erase the menagerie of problems that caused the Nationals to lose nine of their first 10 games of the homestand, but it did send them into a six-game road trip in New York and Philadelphia with a shred of momentum.
Martis was solid for six innings before Jones homered in the seventh. Beimel gained a measure of redemption from a ghastly three-week stretch (an 8.38 ERA in his last 10 appearances before Sunday), and Hanrahan, building more off his mid-90s fastball than he has most of the year, got an emphatic 13-pitch save.
“If we keep going with that combination of lasting pitching and lasting defense, regardless of the offense, it’s going to change,” manager Manny Acta said. “Bless the Lord we won this one because it’s been a really tough homestand, and it was going to be a long train ride to New York.”
As well-rounded as the Nationals were in erasing a 3-0 deficit on Sunday, the victory came back to Dunn.
His first month in Washington had been nothing short of spectacular; the towering Texan hit .311 with 11 homers and 28 RBI in his first 30 games, livening up the Nationals’ clubhouse with his dry humor and joining Ryan Zimmerman as one of the team’s unofficial spokesmen.
But after that, Dunn entered what he calls a “valley” - he doesn’t like the word “slump,” he joked Sunday - hitting .200 and striking out 16 times.
He missed a chance to win Tuesday’s game against the Pirates, striking out with a runner on second and the game tied at 5-5 in the ninth. The Nationals lost 8-5 in extra innings, and frustration had been increasingly visible on Dunn’s face all week.
That all went away in the last three innings Sunday - for Dunn and the rest of the team.
At the end of a long week, there’s reason to hope it won’t return soon.
“We’re playing pretty good. But we haven’t been doing what we’re really good at, and that’s hitting,” Dunn said. “If we continue to get people out, and get our hitting to come back, it’ll be really fun to watch.”