It’s tough to hold up the Nationals’ seven-run rally with two outs in the eighth inning, which gave them an 8-4 victory over the Astros on Tuesday, as a shining example of the team’s resilience in September, since they’ve already been read the riot act for their effort once and played one of their flattest games of the year 24 hours before.
Let’s also not point to their 63rd win of the year, which prevented a third straight 100-loss season, as some significant milestone. They would have needed to lose their last 12 to hit 100 losses, and frankly, most players weren’t sure what to make of it. John Lannan called it “huge” to avoid 100 losses, while Ian Desmond chucked at the idea.
“I thought we had 100 already,” Desmond said.
So what should be made of the Nationals’ storm-from-behind victory on Tuesday? Maybe nothing more than the fact that the players most responsible for it are the ones surging to the finish line while most of the team is limping.
Lannan, who gave up three runs in the first inning, both made the whole thing possible and necessary. He allowed three runs in the first inning, giving up four hits in what looked like it would be a short night for the left-hander. And it couldn’t have come at a worse time; the Nationals hadn’t had a quality start in five games. But Lannan, who has been a master of the salvage job during his short career, did what he’s done almost every time he’s had an off-night in the second half of the season: he tweaked his approach, spotted his fastball better and started getting groundouts. By the time he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the eighth inning, Lannan had thrown just 86 pitches, and the rough first inning was a distant memory.
He wound up with a seven-inning, three-run outing that looked much more in line with the rest of his stellar second half than the way it started.
“Right now, I’m not really ready to give up,” Lannan said. “Not until (manager) Jim (Riggleman) takes the ball out of my hands.”
He’s got a 3.15 ERA since coming back from Double-A Harrisburg on Aug. 1, and when he left, the Nationals were still within two runs.
They stayed that close in the eighth because of Tyler Clippard who, in one short season, has gone from one of the game’s most effective setup men to a shaky middle reliever back to a late-inning force.
The last time he gave up a run was Aug. 26. The last time he blew a lead was July 31. Clippard has regained the lively fastball and sharpened the deceptive delivery that made him so good early this year, and in his scoreless eighth inning, he pumped two sliders past Astros hitters for his 99th and 100th strikeouts of the season, becoming the sixth reliever in franchise history to post that many.
“It’s one of those things where you just feel confident out there,” Clippard said. “Lately, I feel like I’ve been able to throw all my pitches for strikes, and that’s the key to why I’ve been successful. It’s a long season, so there’s been some bumps in the road, but lately, it’s been good.”
Then it was on to Rodriguez, who came up with two outs in the eighth and Adam Dunn on first. The catcher’s playing time has been trimmed as the Nationals take a look at catcher Wilson Ramos, and by all accounts, Rodriguez has handed it over graciously.
And perhaps rejuvenated by the days off after playing 105 games in the season’s first five months, Rodriguez has put together his best month since his torrid start to the year. He’s hitting .314 in 10 games. Two of his four homers this season have come this month. None of the previous three were bigger than the one he hit on Tuesday.
On an 0-2 pitch from Felipe Paulino, Rodriguez told himself to stay back, expecting Paulino might throw him something off-speed. He did, hanging a curveball, and Rodriguez volleyed it high off the left field foul pole, tying the game at three and setting the stage for the Nationals to take the game over.
“Everybody knows that he throws hard,” Rodriguez said. “He threw me a good slider and a good fastball. Fortunately, he just got me a hanging curveball, right over the plate, and I made a good swing on it.”
And for one night, at least, the Nationals players who are finishing the season strong picked up the ones who aren’t.
“We’re going to get tested. We’re in last place in the standings. We only have a couple more weeks left in the season,” Clippard said. “But at the same time, it’s going to be good for this club to kind of see what we’re made of. We’ve been going through some tough times lately. Everybody in this clubhouse is kind of looking around to see who’s going to step up and who isn’t. Today was a great step in the right direction.”