PHILADELPHIA - The Nationals aren’t getting any help from the Braves lately.
Atlanta just keeps on rolling, winning 10 of their last 12. So the guys in the Nationals’ clubhouse are taking the mentality that they’ll just have to go ahead and clinch the NL East title without any help from the team nipping on their heels.
“I know if we win three more, we’re in, we win the pennant,” manager Davey Johnson said. “That’s all I want everybody in that room to figure on.”
The magic number was cut down to three tonight thanks to a full team effort. The Nationals got a quality start from Gio Gonzalez, smacked three home runs - two of which flew off the bat of Michael Morse - and were treated to three scoreless innings from their bullpen.
Gonzalez picked up his 21st win of the season, best in the major leagues, despite a very shaky start. He allowed three runs in a 37-pitch first inning and had two Phillies runners in scoring position in the second before settling down.
“Gio about gave me a heart attack the first two innings,” Johnson said. “I was thinking, ‘My goodness, he’s gonna have 100 pitches after three.’ But he came to me after he got through two - luckily, he got through two only giving up three runs - and said, ‘Skip, I got this. Stay with me.’ And I said, ‘I plan on it.’ “
Johnson’s faith in his Cy Young candidate was rewarded. Gonzalez allowed just one runner into scoring position in his final four innings and ended up completing six frames.
Normally after one of his pitchers has a tough time finding the strike zone early, you’ll hear Johnson say that his hurler was too amped up or was overthrowing. Tonight, it was the opposite.
“In his case, I think he was under-amped,” Johnson said. “(Pitching coach Steve McCatty) told me he only threw 13 pitches and he was ready to go in the ‘pen. He made up for it in the first two (innings), so I figured he had a lot more left in the tank. That’s the kind of year he’s had. He’s just been very consistent and he pitched a heck of a ballgame.”
Johnson went to his three most trusted relievers over the final three innings, using Sean Burnett in the seventh, Tyler Clippard for the eighth and Drew Storen for the ninth despite the Nats holding a four-run lead.
“Every game, I don’t care if it’s a save situation or whatever, we’re putting our best foot forward,” Johnson said. “I told the guys, we’ve got three more we’ve got to win. Unless you can’t go, tell me you can’t go.”
The struggling Clippard threw a 1-2-3 eighth with two strikeouts, giving him a much-needed clean frame.
“It was big for Clip,” Johnson “He went back and was clean. I’m gonna keep riding him, too.”
Morse’s first homer was a skyscraper which barely cleared the left field fence. His second was a moonshot which came down in the hat of Tom Gorzelanny in the Nats’ bullpen, an estimated 451 feet away, according to ESPN’s Hit Tracker. Morse is now up to 16 homers on the season.
“He said he was gonna come back and hit 20 by the end of the year,” Johnson said. “He said (his wrist) was healthy and he showed it tonight. Swung the heck out of the bat. He’s a big cog in there.”
Because of his left wrist injury, Morse hasn’t been able to attack the ball much the last few weeks. Johnson saw a big difference in his slugger before yesterday’s batting practice, however.
“He started feeling real good and frisky and started getting the head out,” Johnson said. “He’s been pulling the ball more, which tells me he’s healthy. That ball he hit to right-center was just flat-out crushed. It’s happening at a good time.”