Before the Secret Service snipers on the roof of Nationals Park had even a moment to relax Tuesday night, the Nationals were in position to break out against the Chicago Cubs.
Shortly after first lady Michelle Obama took part in the first-pitch ceremonies, the first three Nationals hitters slapped singles to right field.
Clean-up hitter Laynce Nix then hit into what appeared to be a sure double play yet two runs scored when second baseman Jeff Baker’s throw to short sailed into left field. Baker (Gar-Field Senior High School), the Virginia prep player of the year in 1999, later left the game with back spasms.
This was it. This would be the night the Nationals would show Davey Johnson that they could be the explosive team he’d envisioned when he took over just more than a week ago. They led 2-0 with no outs after their first four hitters against a pitcher making his third major league start since 2007. Washington scored one more in the inning then shut down for the night.
Thanks to a reliable bullpen, the Nationals walked away 3-2 winners with their 12th one-run victory since June 1 and 17th of the season. The Nationals’ past nine victories have been by one run or in extra innings.
“I love one-run games, believe me,” Johnson said. “But every decision you make in a one-run ballgame is kind of critical. Once in a while, I’d like to have a laugher.
“We’re not getting a clutch base hit. We hit some balls hard tonight, that was great, but we scored on a wild throw at second that gives us two runs, and I know we’re a lot better than that. I can’t wait for us to break out.”
Before June 1, the Nationals were 5-12 in games decided by a run. Since then, the tide has turned. Tuesday night marked their 17th one-run victory.
“Pretty much,” said closer Drew Storen when asked if one-run games had become the norm. “I love it. I kind of don’t want it any other way. It makes my job a little harder, and I kind of enjoy the pressure. I like that. And like I said, in the end, that’s going to be better for us.”
Tuesday, it didn’t matter that the Nationals stranded 10 runners, six by right fielder Jayson Werth, whose average tumbled to .221. Nor did it matter that Washington was 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
After starter Ross Detwiler gave up a two-run homer to Aramis Ramirez in the sixth, Todd Coffey, Sean Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Storen combined for 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief.
“We’re winning one-run games because our pen’s keeping us in, and our starting pitching is giving us an opportunity to take a lead,” said second baseman Danny Espinosa, who was 2-for-3 and saved the Nationals from a possible tie game with a phenomenal bare-handed play to end the game.
“Once our offense truly gets going and we’re all going on the same cylinders, it’s not going to be a one-run game anymore,” Espinosa said.
Cubs starter Ramon Ortiz was effective after the first inning. Making just his third start in the majors since 2007, he struck out seven over six innings and forced the Nationals to leave runners on in every inning he worked except the second.
Since Johnson took over, the Nationals are averaging three runs and have yet to win by more than one run. The team ERA in those wins is 2.19.
“I think we’re looking for too much or not looking for our pitch and driving it,” Johnson said. “I like the hitters in our lineup. It’s not like they’re slouches. They’re good hitters, but we just haven’t done what we’re capable of.”