In the mind of Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams, Monday night’s 6-4 victory over the Miami Marlins was not so much a matter of momentum as execution.
“We look at last night,” Williams said Tuesday afternoon, “and the prime at-bats last night came with two out.”
Two-out hits are the lifeblood of every offense in baseball. They prolong innings, frustrate opponents, wear out pitchers and, more often than not, fuel wins. And entering Tuesday night’s game, the Nationals had more of them than any other team in Major League Baseball. They had 91 two-out hits in the first 27 games of the season, narrowly edging the Kansas City Royals and Boston Red Sox, who each had 90.
“Obviously hits with two outs are key,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who leads the team with 17 such hits this season. “I think to extend innings, to score runs, those are big RBIs when the pitcher has a chance to get out of the inning. Obviously any RBI is good, but I think getting those with two outs or even extending the inning, whether it’s getting another batter up or if you’re the eighth guy, getting the pitcher up so you can turn the lineup over for the next inning.”
The Nationals had won six of their past seven games entering Tuesday night, and in that stretch, 21 of their 42 runs had been scored with two outs. Zimmerman leads the team with 10 two-out RBI, which is tied for fifth-most in the majors.
During Washington’s early-season struggles, Williams repeatedly stressed the importance of sustaining innings, stringing hits together rather than relying on home runs. And in many instances, those sustained innings depend upon two-out production.
“I just think it speaks to the kind of hitters we have,” Williams said. “We have some veteran guys that understand that hey, a single is really important right here with a guy on second base. Granted you can go up there and try to hit the ball over the fence, and sometimes you’ll hit that three-run homer or that two-run homer, but a majority of the time you’re going to make an out. And it does nothing to be productive for your team. But the two-out base hit is really important over the long haul. So if we can continue to do that with guys out there on second base, then we’ll have a chance to win games.”
On Monday, two-out hits ultimately decided the game. With two outs and runners on first and third in the seventh inning, for example, Jayson Werth hit an 0-2 fastball up the middle to tie the game. Then, in the eighth, the Nationals recorded three consecutive hits with two outs. Tyler Moore hit a pinch-hit single, Denard Span doubled and Yunel Escobar drove them both home, putting Washington ahead for good.
Zimmerman said his approach doesn’t change with two outs, and he doesn’t notice pitchers attacking him any differently in those situations. For others, at-bats with two outs have significant differences.
“I concentrate more and just put the ball in play,” said catcher Wilson Ramos, who ranks second on the team with 11 two-out hits. “Less than two out, sometime you can try to hit a long fly ball, try to hit a homer. With two out, [you’re] more patient, try to hit a single, put the ball in play, see what happens.”
The 2015 season is still not yet a month old, but Washington’s penchant for two-out hits is an encouraging sign, especially given the prolonged slumps it encountered in the opening weeks. Even with those periods of offensive futility, the Nationals are on pace to finish with 546 two-out hits this year, nearly 200 more than they recorded last season, when they finished 26th in the majors.
“It’s all about patience at the plate,” Ramos said. “It’s very different because if you have runner on third base, one out, nobody out, you can hit a sac fly or groundball in the middle of the infield. You can get an opportunity to bring runners in. But with two out, you automatically have to get a single. So it’s not easy to do that.”
As Washington pushes back toward the top of the National League East, where many pundits and Las Vegas oddsmakers believe they eventually will end up, momentum will be important. And in many instances, that momentum starts with a simple occurrence under routine circumstances: a two-out base hit.