The first wins of the Nationals’ streak, those were the hardest ones. They came when nothing was going right on offense - to the point manager Jim Riggleman scrambled his lineup in a search to get his team hitting - and the only way the Nationals could win a game was to get strong pitching, make every defensive play possible and hope a couple runs would be enough to get it done.
But as the frequency of the wins increased, so did the margin for error. First came a six-run comeback against the Cardinals on Tuesday night, in a game where the Nationals looked all but dead. Then came a 10-0 romp on Wednesday, during which Livan Hernandez gave up just three hits and the Nationals slugged four homers. And on Thursday, they continued to stay so hot, they were able to win even when things on which they normally have to rely weren’t working for them.
With the Nationals up 4-2 in the eighth inning, Tyler Clippard gave up a home run to Albert Pujols. It happens - Clippard has given up six homers this year, and Pujols has hit 424 of them in his career. But in the ninth inning, Drew Storen also gave up a homer, blowing just his second save of the year. Even the Nationals’ errorless streak ended in the 10th inning, after Danny Espinosa was slow to charge a roller in the infield and threw off-target to Michael Morse at first.
The Nationals had long since shifted into high gear, though. And in the bottom of the inning, it was Espinosa driving a pitch into the home bullpen for a walk-off win.
In their 7-4, 10-inning win over the Cardinals on Thursday night, the Nationals very much looked like a team on a roll. They hit four homers for the second straight game, including back-to-back shots to start the night. Sean Burnett - the troubled reliever who’d either blown leads or taken losses in three of his last six appearances - got Pujols to pop up in the 10th and froze Lance Berkman on an outside sinker to end the inning. And even when their best method of success - an impressive starting performance to get a lead to Clippard and Storen - failed them, they still found a way.
“It kind of feels like the early stages of (contending) teams, where we’ve got to convince ourselves and believe that we’re capable of that, and we are,” said outfielder Laynce Nix, who hit his 10th homer of the season. “If we keep playing well and beating good teams, we’ll start realizing we should compete and win these games.”
The Nationals right now are as hot as they’ve been in almost two years; their six-game win streak is their longest since a seven-game run to end the 2009 season. But that only served to dress up an ugly final record (59-103). This streak is moving the Nationals closer to respectability. They’re 33-36 for the season, out of last place in the NL East at their latest juncture since 2007 and only 5 1/2 games back of the Braves for the National League wild card.
“You can’t fold the tent in tough times. You’ve got to come out of them as quick as possible,” manager Jim Riggleman said.
With a clubhouse full of veterans, this doesn’t seem like a team that will cave. The current 25-man roster has nine players with playoff experience and seven with championship rings, and for all the Nationals’ at a few key spots, they have enough veterans in place to keep things from spiraling off course. As quiet - and sullen - as the Nationals’ clubhouse got at times during a 10-losses-in-12-games stretch last month, it never felt like players were ready to punt on the season.
The payoff for that is nights like Thursday, when the Nationals win even without their best method of doing so.
“Hitting’s contagious. Baseball’s contagious,” outfielder Jayson Werth said. “We’re kind of building this thing, and we’re going in the right direction. The wheels are turning in the right direction now. We’ve got a long homestand here. Hopefully we can continue to do what we’re doing.”