The heart of the Nationals’ order - Ryan Zimmerman, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham - combined for six hits against the Royals on Tuesday night. Five of them went for extra bases, and two of them left the park. Luis Atilano flipped fastballs over the plate, getting the Royals’ hitters to ground out the ones they didn’t miss. Tyler Clippard pitched a perfect eighth, and Matt Capps did what he does - took an easy save, made it difficult and converted it anyway.
It was just that easy for the Nationals in a 4-3 win over Kansas City. Never mind the one-run margin; they’ve gotten used to that by now. Apart from a 49-minute rain delay, during which water moved across Nationals Park in sheets as if powered by some giant-sized industrial fan, and Capps’ adventurous ninth, not much gave the Nationals trouble on Tuesday.
“It was a good team effort,” said manager Jim Riggleman, repeating a refrain he was able to use often early in the season. “It got a little hairy there at the end, but we’ll take that.”
Apart from the opponent - the Nationals were winning games like this against better teams early in the season - it almost felt like April again.
That’s an important distinction to make, because it was the first month of the season in which the Nationals figured out how to win games in spite of their offensive limitations. They went 13-10 that month by pitching well, staying away from harmful mistakes and protecting late leads. And though they got away from that in most of May and much of June, they can hope they’re returning to that brand of baseball.
The Nationals have committed just one error in their last five games, after allowing 17 unearned runs in their previous 15. They’ve mostly pitched well, and they’re starting to see Zimmerman come back from a prolonged slump; he’s got a .625 on-base percentage the last two days after a 4-for-34 stretch.
And with Atilano, they got a strong effort from a pitcher who hadn’t turned in many of those lately.
He threw only 5 1/3 innings on Tuesday, spending some of his pitches in an attempt to stay loose during the rain delay. But working with a solid four-seam fastball, Atilano got his sixth win after a stretch of three losses. He didn’t walk anyone, and struck out five batters, finally seeing the benefits of the between-starts work he’s done with pitching coach Steve McCatty to keep better balance in his delivery.
“I’ve been working with McCatty in between starts, and finally, the work we’ve been putting together is reflecting in the game,” he said.
Now they’ll have a chance at a sweep, with Stephen Strasburg on the mound for tomorrow’s 4:35 start. It’s the kind of series the Nationals badly needed against the Royals, and so far, they’ve won games in a way that’s worked for them before.