ATLANTA — The Washington Nationals took the field Saturday evening looking to erase bad memories. The first: an error-riddled second-half debut the night before that contributed to their most lopsided loss of the season. The second: an injury-shortened outing for John Lannan in his last start on July 8 after he took a line drive off his face.
With those goals in mind, manager Davey Johnson sat in the visitors’ dugout at Turner Field hours before they’d do both in a 5-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves and talked about an offense that has sputtered for much of the season.
“They want it real bad,” Johnson said. “This is the hardest working club I’ve ever been around. We’re not hitting — but we hit more than any club I’ve ever been associated with by about 100 percent. It’s going to bear fruit.”
When the final score was in the books just after 10 p.m., and his team had rapped out nine hits, Johnson seemed somewhat prophetic. The manager finished his pre-game discussion by noting that it probably wouldn’t happen quick enough for anyone — the players or himself. His team proved at least that part wrong when they went out and tagged Braves starter Tommy Hanson for five runs in 5 1/3 innings, including a two-run homer by Wilson Ramos that helped chase Hanson from the game.
“We know he’s a good pitcher,” Ramos said. “Today, he missed a lot of pitches, so every hitter was looking for that. … We hit pretty good today. We didn’t hit last night, but we came and played hard today.”
“I felt that we were going to start hitting for about a week now,” Johnson said after the game. “We’ve swung the bats a lot better. … That’s what we’re capable of doing.”
As an added bonus, the decisive blow in the game came from the only Nationals’ starting pitcher still searching for that elusive first hit of the season.
Lannan began Saturday as a career .083 hitter, with 32 hitless at-bats this season. But in just his sixth career plate appearance with the bases loaded, Lannan ended his wretched offensive stretch. He gave the Nationals what would stand up as the winning run with a two-run single up the middle in the second inning, along with a brief 3-0 lead. In the sixth, he’d add his second hit of the season to raise his career average to .092 and cap a solid outing in which he’d given up two earned runs in 5 2/3 innings.
“I just felt confident out there tonight,” Lannan said of his start, where his only big mistake was an 0-1 changeup to Alex Gonzalez that went for a two-run homer. “I was just trying to get past what happened last [Friday]. That was the main thing. I felt comfortable out there.
“It’s always going to be there every once in a while. But I’ve just got to go out there and face the fear, kind of, and just know that it was kind of a freak accident. Just go out there and trust your stuff.”
Lannan didn’t display the type of control he has shown in recent starts — he walked four — nor was his sinker as effective. Still, his injury-shortened start aside, Lannan has a 2.04 ERA in nine starts dating back to May 27. Saturday, he was able to dart out of trouble and was aided by superb defense, particularly from shortstop Ian Desmond who made several outstanding plays. The left-hander also fanned four.
With a 5-2 lead in the sixth and two Braves on base, Lannan turned the game over to Ryan Mattheus. Mattheus got Gonzalez to ground into a fielder’s choice to end the inning and also pitched a perfect seventh. In 14 games, Mattheus has allowed just four of 17 inherited runners to score.
By the time Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen combined for hitless eighth and ninth innings, the Nationals had secured themselves a .500 record on the season yet again and jumped several hurdles in the process of moving forward.
“The character over here is unbelievable,” Johnson said. “You’re never as bad as you look when you lose and especially when you lose like we did [Friday]. You just brush it off and you play the next day. We played an outstanding game. The Braves made the errors. That’s baseball.”