It’s the last week of June and the season isn’t quite halfway complete yet, so there’s only so much significance that can be applied to a three-game series at this point.
The Nationals didn’t make a profound statement this week. There’s too much time left for that script to be flipped, as everyone in Washington painfully found out one year ago.
Then again, it’s not like anyone inside the home clubhouse tonight was complaining about a 4-2 victory that completed a series sweep of the Mets.
“It’s everything,” manager Dusty Baker said. “You want them to step up against everybody, but especially against your rivals, guys you’re chasing or guys that are chasing you. This was big. (The Mets) could’ve gone out of here tied for first place, too. And instead, they went out six out.”
Indeed, New York limped out of town a full six games back in the National League East, now in third place behind the under-the-radar Marlins. For a Nationals club that saw their rivals from the Big Apple sweep them twice in big, late-summer series one year ago en route to the division crown and eventually the NL pennant, this was particularly sweet.
“Those games, they just count extra,” said Daniel Murphy, who again terrorized his former team with a pair of homers. “You’ve got one team, when they win, they move in one direction, the other team moves in the other one. So as good as the ballclub is, as good as that staff is, as good as that middle of the lineup can be, it’s good to get three from them.”
The Nationals captured this series with a variety of performances. They exorcised their clutch hitting demons during Monday night’s 11-run explosion. They watched rookie Lucas Giolito excel during a rain-shortened debut start Tuesday night. And then they turned to their ace tonight, letting Max Scherzer lead the way with one of the most dominating starts of a season that has included several others.
Scherzer allowed just three baserunners over 7 1/3 innings (two singles, one walk). He retired 18 batters in a row during a prolonged stretch that began in the top of the second and extended into the top of the eighth. He struck out 10 for the seventh time this season, the 43rd time in his career.
And he was able to bounce back from a frustrating start against the Brewers last weekend in which he gave up two homers en route to a 5-3 loss.
“I was able to rebound from that start in Milwaukee and really come with a good start tonight when we needed it,” the right-hander said. “It’s big to be able to sweep these guys. I know it’s only June, but any time you can sweep your divisional opponents, that’s huge.”
Scherzer has been especially effective against the Mets, now sporting a 1.66 ERA vs. New York the last two seasons, with only 21 hits allowed in 43 1/3 innings and a 61-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
And in what most would probably consider something of a down year so far, Scherzer’s season totals (9-5, 3.30 ERA, 148 strikeouts and only 29 walks in 114 2/3 innings) still look awfully impressive.
“I think he’s an All-Star, personally,” Baker said. “Not because he’s on my team, which helps. But this guy, he can easily win 20. So don’t count him out. This guy, he wanted it tonight. Badly. I think he wanted to make an impression on the league, and also on the All-Star manager (Terry Collins) that’s over there.”
Scherzer made an impression on the Mets. But he wasn’t alone. The entire Nationals roster did a number on the defending NL East champs the last three nights.
Perhaps this will all be a footnote by season’s end. But as the calendar is about to be flipped to July and the baseball season moves into its second half, the Nationals are making it clear which team is controlling the pace in the division and which teams are going to be left chasing the other.
“I think it’s big,” reliever Shawn Kelley said. “But I also think it shows you how everyone talks about the (seven-game) skid we went on, but we were able to come home and bounce right back and take care of business against our division rivals. I think it just kind of shows as far as what goes on outside, that’s not necessarily what’s going on inside. There’s not any panic. Just good baseball and a lot of guys that are focused on winning right now and getting into October.”