Nationals walk off on O’s

The Nationals’ Pythagorean expectation - a sabermetric measure what their won-loss total should be based on their run-loss differential - says through 45 games, they should be 20-25.

According to the calculator, the Nationals’ latest tightrope triumph, a 4-3, 10-inning win over the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday, means they’re a full three games better than they should be. It says the Nationals’ habit of winning close games isn’t sustainable, and sooner or later, the team is likely headed for a fall.

That may be true. But right now, the numbers don’t tell the story.

Jim Riggleman talks with the media after the Nats’ 4-3 walk-off win over the Orioles

What was proved again on Sunday, as has been proved multiple times already this year, is that this is a team engineered to win close games. The Nationals have a bullpen that’s working without a weak link right now; even with Matt Capps blowing his first save of the season on Sunday, the group showed how deep and versatile it is. Washington’s defense can take on any number of late-inning looks to keep the team ahead or tied. They have a manager, in Jim Riggleman, who relishes the mental gymnastics required in the late innings of tight games. And the offense, despite being 11th in the National League in runs, has had plenty of different heroes already.

On Sunday, it was Josh Willingham, who blasted a 2-1 pitch from Cla Meredith into the Red Porch seats to give the Nationals a 4-3, 10-inning win over the Orioles. It gave the Nationals a 3-2 record on a homestand where they struggled more often than they cruised, put them back a game over .500 and clinched a win in the first of two series against their regional rivals.

“Going into a big road trip like this, you always want to win a game like this,” Willingham said. “Hopefully you can carry the emotion into the road trip.”

And it was more evidence for how this team can - and will probably have to - win games.

The Nationals are 10-6 in one-run games now, winners of two this weekend by a run. They’d won eight of the other nine with Capps saving the game, but needed to retake the lead after he allowed a run on Sunday. But they got a chance to do just that, with Doug Slaten working a perfect 10th and Willingham taking his turn as the hero.

This is how general manager Mike Rizzo designed the team in the offseason, favoring nimble outfielders over hulking sluggers and swapping underperforming relievers for reliable ones until he found the right mix. The fruits of those decisions were evident on Sunday, all of them leading to Willingham’s homer.

There were plenty of points before that, though, where the Nationals could have broken down. They got behind for the third time in as many games, with left-handers Corey Patterson and Nick Markakis engineering a first-inning run against John Lannan. The Nationals’ top starter, though, didn’t give up another hit after that; he walked three, but squelched innings with ground-ball outs the rest of the day.

By the time the Nationals hit the sixth inning, they had a 3-1 lead courtesy of Roger Bernadina’s bases-clearing triple, which came on a play eerily similar to the set piece from Saturday’s game where Adam Jones hit an inside-the-park homer off Nyjer Morgan. This time, it was Jones who couldn’t come up with a leaping grab at the center-field wall, and the Nationals took a lead they’d hold through the rest of Lannan’s outing.

When the left-hander, who’s still trying to regain strength after missing a start with elbow discomfort, gave up a hit in the sixth, Riggleman opted for a quick hook and put in rookie Drew Storen with a man on second.

“It was kind of that either/or situation when I took (Lannan) out of the game,” Riggleman said. “I had a lot of confidence Storen would match up pretty good there.”

Storen walked a batter, but threw a hard slider to strike out Luke Scott and end the inning. Then he sailed through the seventh inning, giving the Nationals room to play with a bullpen that couldn’t be much better right now. Sean Burnett hasn’t given up a hit in four appearances, and can be used as a lefty specialist or late-inning reliever, depending on the situation. Same goes for Doug Slaten, who’s brought a charge to this bullpen, has allowed just one run in seven appearances and won for the second time on Sunday when Willingham hit his walkoff.

“We really feel good about the way we have the two lefties there (Burnett and Slaten). I feel like I can use them both either way; if one gets used a little more, then the other one can go a little further the next day,” Riggleman said. “And Storen and (Tyler) Clippard both from the right side. A lot of what we did there yesterday and today, we go back to (Miguel) Batista. Two innings before the Baltimore series, four the first day (of the Orioles series on Friday), really allowed these guys to catch their breath and pitch effectively.”

Clippard, who pitched a pair of 1-2-3 innings earlier in the week, was only needed for a batter on Sunday. And even though Capps blew a save, his only crime was giving up a few ground balls that found their way through the Nationals’ infield.

By the time the Nationals came to the plate in the 10th, they’d shuttled five outfielders through three different spots and put Adam Kennedy in the game at first base for Adam Dunn. They’d used six pitchers, a pinch-hitter and let Storen warm up in the eighth, forcing the Orioles to send left-handed Scott Moore to the plate before Riggleman switched to Burnett and got Baltimore manager Dave Trembley to use another bench player (Lou Montanez).

All that strategy, and all those options, set the stage for Willingham’s homer in the 10th. That he hit it registered only mild shock. It was a game the Nationals knew how to handle, and they did it again.

“I’m not saying there wasn’t the effort (before), but it hasn’t really happened for us,” Lannan said. “I think it’s contagious when guys do that. Everybody’s having fun, everybody’s getting along and I think we have a great team.”