ST. LOUIS | If the Nationals’ doubleheader sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday was the coming out party for their offense - a facet of their game that had been dormant for much of the first 15 games — then their victory in the first game of a doubleheader with the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday was more proof that their formula for winning likely won’t include the longball.
And if Wednesday’s first game is an indication of things to come this season, the Nationals aren’t going to make winning easy, either.
Playing their second doubleheader in four days, Washington tallied just three extra base hits in Game 1 but used aggressive baserunning and timely hitting for a six-run third inning that they managed to hold on to — with help from the longball — for an 8-6 win.
“We’ve got to do that,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “We’re not going to be a slugging ball club. My guess [in spring training] was that we’ll probably end up scoring a similar number of runs that we did last year but do it with less home runs. That’s going to have to be on some athleticism and baserunning.”
In the third, the Nationals sent seven straight batters to the plate with one out and all seven reached base. More importantly, the Nationals were afforded six opportunities to take an extra base — and they capitalized on all of them.
Jayson Werth took an extra base on his RBI single when the throw from the outfield went to third to hold Rick Ankiel. Adam LaRoche went first to third on Ian Desmond’s two-run single two batters later, and when Laynce Nix reached base on a single that sent Desmond to third, the two executed a double steal perfectly for the Nationals’ fifth run of the inning.
“Desi read the throw coming out of the catcher’s hand a little bit low and felt that it was going to be tough down there to handle,” Riggleman said. “He just took a chance there and got a good break.”
It was the first successful steal of home plate for the Nationals’ franchise since the team relocated to Washington.
“It shows our attitude this year,” said reliever Drew Storen, who picked up the four-out save, of the aggressive baserunning the Nationals displayed in the third, particularly by Werth.
“Down in the bullpen, we saw that and we get fired up about that stuff,” he said. “I’m not a fielder, but it fires you up because [Werth’s] out there playing the game hard and that’s what we need to do if we’re going to really surprise people in this tough division, that’s how you need to play.”
But while the Nationals came out of the game on a four-game winning streak — the first time they’ve strung four wins together in April since 2005 — they were more the victors in a war of attrition than dominant attackers after the third inning.
Until Nix sent a solo home run into the right-field seats, a swing that Riggleman said, “reminded us we can still score,” in the top of the eighth, the Cardinals had retired 13 straight Nationals and had clawed their way back to only trail by two. The Nationals had led by a touchdown.
Instead of cruising to a victory, saving their bullpen for the looming nightcap and making quick work of the Cardinals, reliever Chad Gaudin and an error by Desmond made a mess of things with two outs in the sixth, and the Nationals saw the go-ahead run come to the plate in Albert Pujols.
Tyler Clippard, one of five relievers the Nationals needed, challenged Pujols with fastballs and changeups in an eight-pitch at-bat and finally retired the feared slugger on a fly to left on a 2-2 pitch.
“I didn’t want to give in to him,” Clippard said. “I went right after him with my fastball and got him out luckily enough.”
They escaped with a win to move two games over .500 for the first time all season and the first time since May 16, 2010, but in order to increase that margin to three games they’ll need to do it with a short bullpen and will have to hold off - for a second time -one of the hottest offenses in baseball.
“We did some good things,” Riggleman said. “We ran the bases good, and Desmond and Nix did some good things with the double steal, but it was just a tough win. For a 7-0 ballgame and then to have to grind it out like that, it just speaks to you’ve got to keep adding on because that’s a very good ballclub over there.”