With win over Marlins, Nats continue to create new identity

One year ago tomorrow, the Nationals started a 10-day stretch of games that would define their 59-103 season. It began with three softball-score losses on the West Coast: 10-8 to Arizona, then 11-7 and 9-7 to San Francisco. After a win against the Giants, the run continued with six losses at home - four to the Phillies, two to the Pirates - during which the Nationals’ offense would score enough runs to win, only to watch some deflating relief appearance or dumbfounding error push the game out of reach.

The Sisyphean stretch set a baseball record: the Nationals became the first team in major league history to score five runs or more in 10 straight games and only win one of them. The identity of the team had been cast: the Nationals were a team that found ways to lose games.

How this team emerged from the shell of that one is something of a mystery. Maybe the 2010 Nationals have enough players who learned from the losses and sprang forward from them, and maybe enough of the faulty parts have been sent elsewhere, replaced with established veterans who know how to win.

But what these Nationals are doing is so different from a year ago, it almost defies explanation. They don’t shrink in close games; they embrace them. They do little things right instead of doing big things wrong. And a team that ranked last in the National League in most pitching and defense categories last season is winning most of its games with those two things this year.

The Nationals did that again on Sunday, beating the Florida Marlins 3-2. Few glaring mistakes were made. No run was wasted, and when they came to a pivotal moment against their recent tormentors, the Nationals used a former Marlin to break Florida the same way they did on Saturday; Josh Willingham’s solo homer off Clay Hensley landed in the Marlins’ bullpen in the eighth inning, putting Washington ahead for good.

Jim Riggleman talks with the media after the Nats 3-2 win over the Marlins

Washington finished a six-game homestand with four wins, three of those by one run. Is there anything about this team that suggests even a remote association with the 2009 edition?

“We play hard, we pitch good, and let’s see what happens,” said starter Livan Hernandez, who allowed one run in seven innings and has a 1.04 ERA in five starts. “We’re fighting every day.”

With the win, the Nationals moved into a tie for second place in the NL East with the Mets, who they face in a three-game series starting Monday in New York.

Their rise to that point in the standings has come almost in spite of their offense; they’re hitting .253 as a team, and the three teams that have scored fewer runs than Washington entered Sunday with a combined 36-54 record.

No, this has been a different recipe; the defense has been infused with life by athletic rookie shortstop Ian Desmond, playing with an aggressive bent that’s yielded some mistakes but also paid off in the form of more manageable innings.

The Nationals are tied for the third-most errors in the National League, but they’re also taking away outs; according to Ultimate Zone Rating (a statistic that measures how many batted balls a team reaches and converts into outs), the Nationals have saved 4.3 runs this year, sixth-best in the NL. And they’ve allowed more than two runs in an inning just 12 times.

“Somebody pulls out a stat sheet, and it says we’re way down at the bottom,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “But I think if you’re watching the game, you realize we play good defense. We’ve had some fluky errors and some stuff that’s accumulated there that’s never going to really represent how good we’ve played defensively. But as of late, it’s certainly been the way we’ve won ballgames. We’ve been winning ballgames where we’re scoring three to five runs, and that means you’ve got to pitch, and you’ve got to play defense.”

They won Sunday in a fashion that’s become something of their identity early this year. Hernandez punched at the Marlins’ aggressive lineup with a good fastball-changeup combination, though he said his curveball wasn’t working well in the wind at Nationals Park. Hernandez pitched almost the whole game with a lead; the Nationals scored off Anibal Sanchez in the first inning and added another run in the third, when Adam Kennedy walked, took second on Sanchez’s wild pitch and scored on an Adam Dunn single to left.

Hernandez’ only mistake was a hanging sinker to Hanley Ramirez to start the sixth; Ramirez shot it to right, into the jet stream and watched it clear the wall in right-center for his seventh homer of the year. It pulled the Marlins within one, and they tied it in the eighth inning, when Sean Burnett allowed a leadoff single to Chris Coghlan and Jorge Cantu drove him in with a sac fly off Tyler Clippard later in the

But back the Nationals came again; Willingham, who’d tied Saturday’s game with a home run, came to the plate with one out in the eighth. He homered twice on Mother’s Day last year, and his mother, Denise Willingham, asked him to hit another one this year.

“I said, ‘I can’t promise you anything, but I’ll try,’” Willingham said. “It was pretty special to hit that one.”

That set the stage for Matt Capps, the National League leader in saves who was peppering the ball all over the bullpen while warming up on Sunday. He said he didn’t feel good at all before entering the game, but once he got there, Capps was as automatic as he’s been all year; getting through three batters in nine pitches as the Nationals finished a 4-2 homestand.

They start a nine-game road trip now, one that will take them to three cities in three time zones and present a series of disparate challenges; after facing the Mets, the Nationals play four games in chilly Denver against the Colorado Rockies before taking on the Cardinals twice in St. Louis.

At some point on that trip, it’s likely the Nationals’ offense will have to get going, and they know it. They won’t be able to pitch this way forever, or limit runs this effectively with their defense.

But this also isn’t a team that has to slather the scoreboard with runs to win. The Nationals have proved that much early this year.

“Our offense is going to have to turn it up,” said first baseman Adam Dunn, who went 3-for-4 on Sunday. “For some reason, we’re starting off really slow. That’s really the last thing I’m worried about. That’s going to come around. Hopefully the pitching continues to hold up, and the defense. We’ll be right where we want to be.”