I almost didn’t recognize my own house when I finally returned to the front doorstep last night. After spending nearly 15 straight hours at Nationals Park yesterday, I was starting to believe I’d need to eventually curl up and grab some shut-eye in the press box.
I’m not sure the stadium employees would’ve enjoyed that too much.
After a rough, deflating, extra-inning loss to the Twins on Friday night, the Nationals were happy campers last night. They picked up two big wins yesterday to get back to .500 on the season, and did so in encouraging fashion, piling up 24 hits and 12 runs, and getting eight scoreless innings from their bullpen over the two games.
“It was huge,” Ian Desmond said. “I don’t know if we’ve ever played a doubleheader where you pretty much had to win both. It’s not easy to take two in a doubleheader.”
Desmond clearly isn’t saying the season would’ve been over had the Nats dropped one or both of the games yesterday. But if they did, they would’ve remained at least two games under-.500 (four, if they’d dropped both games) and their flight out to Colorado for the start of a nine-game road trip would’ve been a long one.
Davey Johnson didn’t step into the batter’s box and provide any of the offensive production - although I’m sure he would’ve liked to - but the Nats’ skipper did seem to play a major factor in his team’s offensive turnaround yesterday. Johnson’s team meeting before the first game of the doubleheader lit a fire under his players, and his message of having fun and being aggressive at the plate seemed to stick in their minds.
“I mean they don’t just give the Manager of the Year award away,” Desmond said. “Davey’s got a pretty good eye on what’s going on in here, and sometimes you just need that freedom from your manager to say, ‘Hey, just go up there, be aggressive and don’t hold anything back.’ He really freed us up today.”
“His message was just to be aggressive, but be patiently aggressive, be selective,” said Denard Span, who tied the nightcap in the sixth inning with an RBI triple against his former team. “I think sometimes we get up there and we give away at-bats. We are swinging at pitches that we shouldn’t be swinging at. He just wanted us to relax and just get settled in and make sure we get our pitch.”
Strangely enough, that more aggressive - or more patiently aggressive - approach led to more walks, as well. The Nats had walked just five times in their previous seven games entering yesterday’s action, an incredibly low total. But they drew eight walks yesterday, something Johnson says isn’t just a coincidence.
“Once you start being more aggressive early in the count, then they’re a little scared to throw it over,” Johnson explained. “And then they get behind, and then you get better pitches to hit, ahead in the count. By and large, I think that was a great approach that we took this afternoon and also tonight. Refreshing.”
Going into the nightcap last night, the Nationals hadn’t come back to win a game this season after training by more than two runs. A three-run deficit over those first 61 ballgames meant another “L” in the books.
Last night, however, they were able to slowly mount a comeback from three runs down. They got runners on base, they moved them over, and they picked up clutch two-out hits and hits with runners in scoring position to bring guys in.
“When you don’t get (timely hits), you look flat,” Adam LaRoche said. “Team looks dead. Guys look like they’re not into it out there when you’re not hitting and not pitching. You do that and stuff just starts to come to life. You’ve got more energy on the bench. You do this a few times and you get comfortable when you’re down in a game. If you’re down a couple runs in the fourth, fifth inning, you get the feeling that, ‘Chances are we’re going to come back,’ instead of, ‘Here we go again.’
The Nats are still 7 1/2 games back in the National League East and 5 1/2 out of a Wild Card. They’re back at .500 with 100 games remaining, but they’ve still got a big hill to climb. LaRoche doesn’t seem to mind that, however.
In fact, he likes that this situation will force the Nats to put so much focus on each game, knowing they can’t look big-picture when the day-to-day effort is so much more important.
“I don’t mind the position we’re in,” LaRoche said. “I was talking to J-dub (Jayson Werth) about it, and obviously it’s nice to be leading, but I also like the fact that every game from here on out, we need to grind it out. We’re in no position to coast. And I don’t see us being in that position the whole year. I think we’re going to have to grind down to the final game in September to make this thing happen. I don’t mind being a few games back.”