- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 21, 2011

PHILADELPHIA — The standings, being what they are in the National League East, have mattered little to both the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies for some time. The Phillies have been six games or more ahead of the division’s second-place team since mid-August. All the Nationals have known is that they’re too far out of things to make the wins and losses significant in a playoff race.

They’ve been two teams on somewhat divergent paths — the Phillies’ road littered with many more victories than Washington’s. But when both arrived at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday morning they knew one thing: As far as the standings go, whatever happened was, in essence, meaningless.

Two days and three Nationals’ victories later, the latest a 7-5 win that secured both John Lannan’s 10th victory of the season and the Nationals’ first series win in Philadelphia since April of 2008, and that surety is on unstable ground.

“It just shows what we can do, what the team is truly capable of doing,” said second baseman Danny Espinosa after his two-run homer in the sixth gave the Nationals a lead and set a franchise rookie record for home runs with 21.

“As far as what it does for next year, I don’t know,” he added. “This season and next season are completely different. But I think what it does show us as a team is that we can play with anybody and that we can beat anybody. I’m pretty sure the Phillies are the best team in baseball right now and we play them really well. If we believe in ourselves, I think it just shows that we can do whatever we want to.”

Whatever they want to do this season can still include finishing with a winning record — a mark that seemed nearly impossible to reach two weeks ago. On Sept. 8, as the Nationals watched the rain cancel their game against the Dodgers and ensure they’d only play 161 games, they were 11 games under .500. A chance at finishing 81-80 was bleak.

In the 13 games since, the Nationals have won 10 times — including seven straight on the road — and are aware that a 6-1 record over their remaining seven games will earn them the honor of being the only team in Nationals’ history to finish with more wins than losses.

“I think that’s definitely something to shoot for,” Espinosa said. “I’ve said it before. I don’t care if it’s the end of the season. You play until the end and you try to get the best record that you can. You don’t just lay down the last month and let it go by. It’s definitely still a goal that’s very reachable, that we can be over .500.”

“We know we’re not done yet,” Lannan said. “No one is packing it up yet. We want to get to .500. We want to finish the year strong.”

Fueling Washington’s run has been a staff that’s seen one young pitcher after another impress. In staring down his Philadelphia demons Wednesday night, the 26-year-old lefty held the damage to two runs in a five-hit Phillies’ second inning, when he escaped with the bases loaded. He surrendered just one more run over five innings. It wasn’t his best outing, but in his personal house of horrors, it was good enough for his 10th win of the season — the first time he’s reached that mark, and first-ever win inside Citizens Bank Park in seven tries.

“I’ve had some tough times against the Phillies,” Lannan said. “Especially here. It was pretty big for me to come out here and battle through that second and third and get through five.”

Aided by Espinosa’s home run, a two-run shot from Wilson Ramos in the second, along with what amounted to three insurance runs in the eighth inning and Henry Rodriguez’s first career save, the Nationals earned their ninth win against Philadelphia. Regardless of the outcome in their series finale Thursday, the Nationals cannot finish with a losing record in the season series. That has happened only once in their seven-year history.

“I think we’ve played them as tough as anybody they’ve played,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “I’m sure they’re fully aware of that. The last few games, [Phillies manager Charlie Manuel] has thrown everything at us. They’re not important games to them but they also want to end on a good note so, in a way, they are important games.”

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