The seeds for Saturday's 10-2 shellacking of the Texas Rangers were sewn on Friday afternoon, when Nationals right-hander Doug Fister made a guest appearance as the position players gathered to pore over an American League opponent they rarely face. Fister was there to discuss the approach he'd employ with each Rangers hitter in hopes that understanding his pitch sequences and tendencies would help his fielders better position themselves for what might happen when bat hit ball.
"You get a guy that works quick and is a contact pitcher, not trying to strike everybody out," said first baseman Adam LaRoche. "He's up there (and) if they can swing at the first pitch, that's what he's shooting for. Here is it, hit it. Hit it into the ground and let the defense work. Yeah, you're on your toes. Not that we're not with the other pitchers, by any means, but he's one of those who has the knack for really quick innings and a lot of strikes."
Fielders like a pitcher who keeps them invested in the game, works quickly, and gets them off the field and up to the plate. That was the strategy Saturday, when the Nationals erupted for 12 hits, including home runs by Anthony Rendon, Jose Lobaton, LaRoche and Scott Hairston. The victory puts them back at .500 for the season (27-27).
Since the fourth inning Friday night, the Nationals have scored 19 runs, no small achievement for a team that was recently struggling to bundle together base hits and sustain rallies. According to Elias Sports, the Nats scored in seven straight innings - the last five Friday and the first two Saturday - for the first time since moving from Montreal (the Expos turned the trick in 2003, so it's not completely foreign territory). And it seems they've proven one of baseball's oldest clichés: Hitting is contagious.
"We've seen it a bunch," LaRoche said after the Nats won back-to-back games for only the second time this month. "We saw stretches of it last year, where we would do this and say, 'OK, here we go' and then it would kind of die off for a little while. This was huge to build off of, to know we can go out there and get more than five or six hits in a game and just keep pouring it on them. Yeah, it's contagious. You get some big runs early and take the pressure off and guys start swinging the bats."
The Nats are 4-1 in Fister's five starts, and probably cursing the untimely lat injury that delayed his debut until early May. They've scored 29 runs in the games when he takes the hill - and that includes an 8-0 shutout loss in his debut in Oakland on May 9. Maybe there's something to be said for a pitcher setting the tone.
"You see him bouncing around out there, you see how quick he works," LaRoche said. "A ton of strikes. It's just an uncomfortable at-bat. He's one of those guys you face, and you look up and it's 0-1, 0-2 it seems like every time. Mixed it up great and seems to throw everything for strikes."
Added Rendon: "(Fister) gets the ball and he's ready to go. We have to pretty much wait on the umpires every inning. I think that's awesome. That's what your pitcher's supposed to do. Attack the hitters and trust the defense."
Fister certainly won't dismiss the support he's received, but it's not like getting a few runs early lifts some sort of imaginary weight off his shoulders and allows him to work more freely.
"Honestly, it doesn't change my approach on the game," Fister said. "I'm always going out there in a 0-0 ballgame. We got to put up zeros on defense. That enables me to stay locked in, that enables me to get quick outs and get our offense back out there. When they're on like that, they want to get back out there and keep swinging it. So might as well get them out there."
Rendon was in the middle of both the offensive explosion, jumpstarting the onslaught with a first-inning solo homer to left to begin a 4-for-5 day and making a stellar defensive play aat third base in the second to prevent the Rangers from rallying from a 1-0 deficit. He spun to his right to snag a sharp grounder off the bat of Adrian Beltre, landing in foul territory as his momentum carried him away from the field. When it looked like Beltre might leg out the hot shot for an infield single, Rendon fired the ball across the field for the inning's first out.
Fister went on to retire the first 13 hitters he faced before Elvin Andrus doubled with one out in the fourth. In the second, Lobaton crushed a two-run homer to right-center, the Nats scored four times and the rout was on. Fister went six innings, allowing two runs on four hits, walking one and striking out six.
Rendon downplayed the play as a reaction thing, where he didn't have time to really think about what was happening. Fister said it happened so quickly, he could barely appreciate the defensive artistry before turning his attention to the next hitter. But LaRoche, the guy on the other end of Rendon's throw, was still talking about the play after the game.
"The most impressive part is how much he got on the throw, to me," LaRoche said. "I'm expecting him to skip if over there and he threw a seed, chest-high all the way across the diamond. So that's very impressive."
The four-hit afternoon raised Rendon's average to .268, the highest it's been since May 19, when a 1-for-17 bender dropped him from .271 to .255. After Wednesday night's game, Rendon was at a season-low .251.
"It feels good," he said. "The ball rolls both ways, just like I've been saying. It just happened to roll my way today."