This little two-game series between the Nationals and Tigers was billed by some as a potential World Series preview.
It's just two games in May, of course. But the Nationals played two pretty smooth ballgames the last two days, picking up wins over the reigning American League champions in each despite a comeback effort today by Detroit.
The Nats held a 5-1 lead after two innings, but Matt Tuiasosopo's pinch-hit, three-run homer in the sixth made things interesting. In the end, the Nats pulled out a 5-4 win, with Prince Fielder's drive to center with two outs in the ninth coming down on the warning track in the glove of Denard Span.
Dan Haren allowed four runs and nine hits over six innings, picking up his fourth win, the Nats got an RBI from each of their 3-6 hitters, and Rafael Soriano notched his 12th save of the season.
"It's nice to see us starting to get some timely hits," manager Davey Johnson said. "A great first couple innings and then it slowed down, but I've liked the progress we're kind of making. It was great today to see Zim (Ryan Zimmerman) swinging the bat really good and Adam LaRoche continuing to swing the bat really good. That's the big thing today, for me. Haren pitched a good ballgame. ... But that was a great game. Bullpen did a great job."
Johnson was asked if he feels the Nats and Tigers were pretty evenly matched over these last two days.
"Totally different ballclubs, they've got more of a veteran ballclub. We've still got some young guys learning," Johnson said. "But no, I thought both games were very well-played, good defense on both sides. Some good pitching. But it's too early for me to even think about that stuff."
Haren wasn't as sharp as he was his last couple times out - he admitted as much after the game - but he scatted nine hits and up until the Tuiasosopo homer, had done a really nice job limiting the damage. Even with the homer included, Haren's four earned runs allowed over six is nothing to be ashamed of against this Tigers lineup.
He held the Tigers' top four hitters in their lineup - Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Fielder - to just two hits in 13 at-bats.
"We were shaking his hand (after he came out) and he said something, 'I'm sorry about that,' or something," Johnson said with a smile. "But he pitched a good ballgame. Tough club. After the home run I had (Ryan) Mattheus ready, but I wanted to let him finish the inning. ...
"This is an awfully good-hitting ballclub, but when he had to make pitches, he made pitches. And he didn't really get hurt too much by the middle of the lineup. It was fun to watch."
With the Nats holding a one-run lead in the sixth and a runner on second with two outs, Johnson opted to pinch-hit Tyler Moore for Roger Bernadina, a move he felt upgraded his offense but weakened his defense. Moore struck out and then played left field the rest of the way out.
"When you have a lead, you don't like to take out your better defense, but against a ballclub like that, anytime I can add on, I'm gonna try to add on," he said. "I'm trying to get Tyler Moore going. He's still a little overly aggressive, swinging at balls out of the strike zone. Not the kind of hitter he usually is."
Soriano had his work cut out for him in the ninth, having to face the top of the Tigers' potent lineup. He retired Jackson and Hunter to kick off the frame, then Cabrera - who is leading the universe in hitting - dropped a single into center, bringing up Fielder as the go-ahead run.
Fielder's deep fly ball to center triggered an audible gasp throughout the crowd at Nats Park, but it was merely a loud out.
"I had already made up my mind that if Cabrera hit a double, I was walking (Fielder)," Johnson admitted. "I checked, I think he was 2-for-4 with two home runs (off Soriano). I said, 'I'll put the winning run on.' When he hit it, I didn't think he got all of it. The ball didn't really seem to carry, so I was glad to see (Span) stop right in front of the wall."
Johnson says he feels the Nats are getting real close to putting things all together at the same time. Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman continue to come along, the starting pitching is getting a bit more consistent and the defense has really improved over the last couple weeks.
Jayson Werth will probably get one more day off to rest his tight left hamstring, Johnson said, but he could return to the lineup on Saturday. That would allow the Nats to have the whole opening day lineup back together again for the first time in a while.
"This is what we did last year," Johnson said. "That was our formula last year, timely hitting, good pitching. And the starting pitching's been much more consistent and the bullpen's starting to fall into different roles, which is good."