The Washington Nationals are 44-80, and what makes the least sense about that is the offense they’ve used to compile that record.
Washington has gone from having an anemic offense in 2008 to an attack that ranks solidly in the National League’s upper half in 2009. It’s able to score runs in bunches but also capable of going silent for days at a time.
When the Nationals have games like they did Sunday — wringing everything they can out of a lucky break, scratching out a run with the speed at the top of the lineup and blowing the game open with the muscle in the middle — they don’t look like the team with baseball’s worst record.
Sunday’s 8-3 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers makes you wonder what the Nationals could be capable of if they played this way all the time. They have scored 17 runs in their past two games after posting 16 in their previous five. With some consistency, this could be a sneaky good team in the not-too-distant future.
They looked that way Sunday, jumping on the Brewers early, staking Craig Stammen to a big lead and ending a five-game losing streak with an emphatic win.
“We’re more surprised when we don’t score some runs than we are when we do score them,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “We got a little break, and we took advantage of it.”
Needing only to keep the Brewers swinging early in the count and prevent the Nationals’ overworked bullpen from entering too early, Stammen did what he was asked, cruising through 6⅓ innings with a solid two-seam fastball that yielded eight ground outs. He gave up isolated runs in the third, fifth and seventh but never allowed Milwaukee to mount a comeback.
“[Going deep into the game] was my number one goal going in,” Stammen said. “I tried not to think about it, because my goal every time I pitch is to go six or seven innings, throw a quality start out there. But it was really important today to save [the bullpen] and take us in late in the game so we could win.”
It was the perfect recipe for pitching with a big lead, and the Nationals made sure Stammen got rewarded for it. They jumped on Manny Parra for three runs in the first, all of them unearned because of an easy double play Milwaukee couldn’t turn. Shortstop Alcides Escobar bobbled a throw from Felipe Lopez while trying to jump over a sliding Nyjer Morgan at second and throw to first. He never retired Morgan and couldn’t throw out Cristian Guzman — and both eventually scored.
The Nationals got two more runs when Ronnie Belliard punched an outside pitch to right field, scoring Guzman and Ryan Zimmerman. The breaks continued in the second inning. Right fielder Mike Morse led off with a double, moving to third on Stammen’s sacrifice bunt. That made one out and a runner on third with Morgan at the plate.
If ever there were a time for the Nationals to sneak a run across, it was then. Riggleman called for a suicide squeeze, the same play Washington ran unsuccessfully last Sunday in Cincinnati. Morse broke a little early, but Morgan reached for a low fastball and put it down perfectly, leaving the Brewers only a play at first.
“I just wanted to make sure we got one more run out of it,” Riggleman said. “It’s kind of the luck of the draw. You hope you can get a pitch the guy can handle. Nyjer bunts so much anyway that, if he threw him something tough to get to, he would at least be able to put the bat on it. But he got a good pitch to do it with.”
Guzman followed with a homer to left, giving the Nationals a 5-0 lead. Adam Dunn’s homer to the upper deck in right field made it 6-1 in the third inning. It was 8-1 in the fourth on Zimmerman’s two-run shot to center. Stammen came out in the seventh, turning it over to a bullpen that put in 2⅔ shutout innings.
That’s pretty easy when the offense is working.
“It [was working Saturday] a little bit. We swung the bat good. To get some runs early was nice,” Zimmerman said. “To have Craig pitch the way he pitched and play defense, it’s all good.”