- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2014

MIAMI — The Nationals passed empty bottles of champagne around the visiting clubhouse at Marlins Park this weekend, accompanied by silver Sharpies for autographs on the green glass.

Less than a week has passed since the Nationals were spraying those bottles in Atlanta after a division-clinching victory. They kept them as keepsakes, memories of their second National League East title in three years, signed in many instances by not just players but also coaches and team staff members.

Clinching the division left the Nationals with little more than seeding and momentum to gain in the final 12 games of the regular season. They could have eased off the gas or fielded a lineup of minor league callups day after day. They could have gone through the motions, win or lose, and known that their season will go on anyways.

Instead, the Nationals kept pushing, a phrase manager Matt Williams used earlier this week to describe the team’s goal. On Sunday afternoon, it came in the form of a dominant outing from Stephen Strasburg, who allowed just three hits over seven scoreless innings to lead Washington to a 2-1 victory and a four-game sweep against the Marlins.

With the win, the Nationals ensured their final road trip of the regular season would also be their best. After going 14-14 in their first three three-city trips, the Nationals went 9-2 against the Mets, Braves and Marlins over the past 11 days.

“It’s huge,” Strasburg said. “We just got to keep the train rolling.”

Strasburg picked up his 13th win of the season Sunday. He walked two batters in his first two innings and said he was “a little squirrelly” early in the afternoon. But he did not allow a ball out of the infield until the fifth and left the game after throwing only 84 pitches.

Strasburg’s start was the most recent in a long line of similarly strong outings. During their 11-game road trip, Nationals starters allowed a total of 12 earned runs over 71 1/3 innings of work, which translates to a 1.52 earned-run average. They allowed 54 hits (an average of five per start) and recorded 45 strikeouts to only nine walks.

“They’re all going out and busting their [rears],” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “They’re performing at the level you expect them to perform at. They’re pretty damn good. It’s got nothing to do with me. I just let them go out there and I count pitches. I’m damn good at counting pitches. They’ve taken this big part of the year, and they’ve stepped it up.”

Strasburg had a particular knack for inducing groundballs on Sunday. The Nationals recorded 11 outs on grounders over his seven innings, including double plays in the first and second.

Williams attributed the grounders to Strasburg’s command of his fastball, and the right-hander agreed. “It’s just executing the right pitch at the right time,” he said. But catcher Jose Lobaton noticed something else, even on pitches Strasburg did not execute perfectly.

“He was missing down a lot today,” Lobaton said. “If you miss down, you’re going to be able to get groundballs. Today was the day he was missing there. First and second inning, every ball he missed was down.”

Williams chose to rest several regulars on Sunday, including Wilson Ramos, Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond and Ryan Zimmerman, who was activated off the disabled list and started the previous night. That gave substitutes, like Lobaton and reserve outfielder Nate Schierholtz, a chance to make an impact.

Such was the case in the fifth inning, when Lobaton hit a leadoff double and Schierholtz followed with a triple to the gap in right-center field. Anthony Rendon then doubled two at-bats later to bring Schierholtz home, recording his 39th double and 81st RBI in the process.

“Every game is important for us. Every game, no matter what,” Lobaton said. “It’s really important to win every day, and we’re going to keep winning. I know we have the team that can win every day.”

Rafael Soriano entered in the ninth, his first save opportunity since blowing back-to-back chances earlier this month and being removed from the closer’s role. He gave up four well-hit fly balls, including one that fell for a double, but escaped with his 32nd save of the year.

With a combination of four more Washington wins and Dodgers losses, the Nationals would clinch the best record in the National League and home-field advantage up until the World Series. But if and when they reach that milestone, there will still be value in the momentum that comes with a season-ending surge.

“I’ve always said I don’t think necessarily the best team wins the World Series every year,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “It’s a lot of times guys scrambling in late, sneaking in and playing a bunch of basically playoff games for two weeks and [carrying] that momentum on through. So we need to definitely find a way to keep this going, regardless of whether we lock down home-field or not.”

The Nationals watched the fourth quarter of the Redskins game on clubhouse televisions as they packed their bags for the last time in the regular season. Their lockers were cleared until only a few possession remained. In one locker, a champagne bottle sat alone on the middle shelf, one they hope will be the first of many.

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