- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2012

NEW YORK — The Washington Nationals won Tuesday night. They beat the New York Mets 5-3 to win their 88th game of the season.

They won on the bat of a rookie slugger, a player who had spent almost every day of his professional career at first base, only to spend most of his first year in the major leagues as an outfielder and a bench player.

They showered Tyler Moore with bubble gum in the dugout after his first-pitch, pinch-hit home run sailed into the left-field seats at Citi Field to turn what was a 2-1 Mets lead into a 3-2 Nationals edge they would only continue to build on. They reveled in another role player coming through in a pivotal moment for them.

When it was over, when Tyler Clippard had locked down his 31st save of the season, they retreated to the clubhouse, where the televisions, tuned to the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers, offered more good news. There they learned that their magic number to clinch the divisional crown was about to drop again, to 13, and their lead in the National League East would increase to 7½ games.

And finally, it was OK to want to pay attention.

“It’s time to be looking at magic numbers,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “And I’ve been looking at them for a while now.”

“I think it’s been that way for 10 days, two weeks,” said outfielder Jayson Werth, who combined with Bryce Harper to go 6-for-7 atop the Nationals’ lineup against R.A. Dickey on Monday night. “As soon as September rolls around, things are pretty serious.”

So serious that the Nationals can now head into their weekend showdown with the Braves with no less than a 6½ game lead in the division — and even if they lose their next four games, they still will hold at least a 3½-game lead when their road trip is over. The magic number “floats around here a little bit,” Moore said Tuesday, so the Nationals are aware of all these facts.

But it’s because of contributions such as his — to salvage a five-inning, two-run performance by Jordan Zimmermann that walked the line between laborious and filthy — that the Nationals can enjoy this portion of the season. Because of the fact that, as Werth put it, “Tyler has a really good chance to be a really good everyday player, a dominant, game-changer type of player. And he’s shown that all season.”

Early Tuesday afternoon, Johnson was asked what the signature of his team was, and he pointed not to his fireballing pitching staff or to his four All-Stars, but to the fill-ins. To the players who allowed them not to fall off, or miss much at all, when so many of their key players were lost to injury.

“It’s an outstanding bench,” Johnson said. “With (Chad) Tracy, Tyler Moore and Co. (Roger Bernadina and Steve Lombardozzi), these guys have been doing a great job all year long. I’m really proud of them. That’s been our strength.”

Moore, who has started just seven games since Werth returned from the disabled list, followed his usual routine during games he’s on the bench.

He watched Dickey’s knuckleball dance all night long and knew that Johnson might opt to pinch hit with him, a right-hander, against the right-handed Dickey the same way switch-hitting second baseman Danny Espinosa opts to hit from the right side against him. In the fifth inning he headed in to take some hacks in the cage. He asked if any of the coaches could throw a knuckleball, but he was out of luck. His name was called with one out and one on in the seventh inning. He stepped in and swung hard.

“They’re not real fun to face,” Moore said, though he did have a hit off Dickey previously. “He’s got probably the best one in the country. I was just fortunate to get one out.

“I think (adjusting to a bench role) is just like anything else — it comes with experience. I failed so many times. I succeed kind of through that, learning from myself and learning on situations from the game. By no means am I a very good pinch-hitter. I was able to come through tonight.”

The Nationals then saw their first five batters in the ninth inning reach base safely and two important insurance runs added to their tally, capped by Harper’s career-high fourth hit of the night to drive in run No. 5.

And as they retreated to the clubhouse, some sitting in their uniforms to watch the end of the Braves game, they got one step closer to the moment when they’ll head there to pop champagne.

“We all want to clinch as soon as we can,” Harper said. “You can’t sleep on some teams. We’re playing well, but we’ve still got to win some ballgames.”

“It seems,” Werth added, “having been in this situation a bunch of times now, it’s like the anxiety only continues to grow on a daily basis. … This is what it’s all about. This is why you work out for three months in the winter and go to spring training early everyday to play. Losing (stinks). I really enjoy winning.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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