The Nationals played their 10th game of the season on Friday night, their fifth without third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in the starting lineup. They lost first baseman Adam Dunn in the first inning, courtesy of a disputed check swing call, a Frisbee-flicked helmet and an ensuing ejection. They entered the eighth inning trailing for the second day in a row, and once again, scored three runs to take the lead for good.
Any questions about whether this team has a different attitude than last year must end now.
Washington’s .500 record, though a minor achievement for most teams and an insignificant milestone 10 games through a 162-game slate, is a real accomplishment for a club that’s made routine practice of starting seasons slowly and never finding the gas pedal. It’s the second-best start in Nationals history after 10 games, behind a 6-4 mark in 2005. But what’s just as important is the way they’re winning games.
They did it again on Friday night, turning a one-run deficit into a two-run lead without the help of their two biggest contributors. Instead, the Nationals played small ball. They took walks, got hit by pitches, beat out infield singles and dropped bunts. In the end, they got a 5-3 win over the Milwaukee Brewers, a .500 record and another chance to go over .500 for the first time since April 2008 in the second game of their series with the Brewers tomorrow.
“I think it might be surprising some other people,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, whose perfectly-placed sacrifice bunt in the eighth inning set the table for Adam Kennedy’s go-ahead single. “From spring training, we’ve been saying, ‘This is our year, we’re going to play ball and we’re definitely going to sneak up on some people.’
To be clear, there were still plenty of imperfections in the win. The Nationals left seven runners on base, failing to drive in Nyjer Morgan or Willie Harris despite the fact the top two hitters in their lineup reached base a combined five times. They allowed the Brewers to take the lead back in the eighth inning when Alberto Gonzalez threw a ball too close to Carlos Gomez at first and Cristian Guzman, covering the bag on a sacrifice bunt, short-armed his attempt to catch it.
There were other defensive issues, and an offense that had to put Alberto Gonzalez in the cleanup spot sputtered just long enough not to reward starter John Lannan for a fine outing. But again, the Nationals did just enough.
And the most encouraging thing for them is, they still aren’t playing all that well. The thought of what will happen when they are is becoming a more common refrain in the clubhouse.
“Certainly, we’re not playing at the top of our game by any means,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “Everybody in there knows we can play a lot better. I’m just really glad the way they’re scrapping and getting after it, trying to win a ballgame when you’re not at the top of your game. But it comes back to pitching, and Lannan pitched a great ballgame for us.”
Lannan had his best outing of the year, scattering seven hits over seven innings and using a sharp curveball to bait an aggressive Brewers lineup into striking out five times. He gave up a wind-aided homer to Casey McGehee in the second inning, but allowed just one more run the rest of the way. Still, he wasn’t in line for the win when he left, and only Josh Willingham’s solo homer in the sixth got him off the hook for a loss.
He did enough to keep the game tied through seven innings. But Guzman hit into a double play in the seventh inning, and the Brewers took the lead on Gonzalez’s error.
The Nationals, though, had one more scrappy comeback in them.
Gonzalez beat out an infield single, and Willingham got hit by a pitch. Then Desmond, planning to bunt the whole way, dropped one just far enough in front of the plate to move the runners over.
“As a ballplayer, as a good teammate, you’ve got to get that bunt down,” Desmond said. “After the first pitch, I told myself, ‘Hey, let’s go. The team needs this right here. You’ve got to be a ballplayer, get the ball down, get a strike, bunt it. Let’s go.’”
That set things up for Kennedy’s single just out of Prince Fielder’s reach down the first-base line, which scored two, and Wil Nieves drove him in. Sean Burnett got the first out of the ninth, and Matt Capps finished a 1-2-3 inning, ending the game before Ryan Braun and Fielder got a chance to do any damage.
These kinds of wins are still far from routine for the Nationals. But the fact they were able to get one without Zimmerman and Dunn is hardly a minor detail.
“Our team’s deep, man,” Dunn said. “When Ryan’s not in there, I mean, it matters. But we’ve got guys that can fill those spots pretty adequately.”