In his 18-minute back-and-forth with reporters while announcing his resignation from the Nationals this morning, team president Stan Kasten said this about the final 10 games of the team's season:
"This is still an important time in our season. The games matter because of the standings, but it also matters because of the glimpses we get of the players who are going to play expanded roles this season and beyond."
At the time, it read like one of Kasten's customary talking points, designed to keep fans interested in the season long past the point of the team's ability to compete for anything. But the way the Nationals played this afternoon made it seem somewhat prescient.
The players that propelled the Nationals to a 7-2 win over the Astros on Thursday all fit Kasten's description as the ones for whom the end of this season means the most. Michael Morse, continuing to pile up statistical evidence he should be playing every day next year, homered for the 13th time in 240 at-bats and drove in another run with a double. Roger Bernadina, another player trying to put his name in the Nationals' projected 2011 lineup, hit a homer. So did rookie shortstop Danny Espinosa, who continues his best Ian Desmond impression with a dynamic September that could land him in the team's 2011 middle infield.
Almost all of that happened in the sixth and seventh inning, serving to lift Ross Detwiler to his first win in a year. Detwiler, another player trying to improve his chances of making the team next spring, cranked out six efficient innings, content to send ground balls into an infield made up of four players who usually play shortstop or second base.
The Nationals romped to their third straight win, and did it all without Adam Dunn or Ryan Zimmerman, who were both nursing injuries. As September baseball games for non-contending teams go, this one couldn't have worked out much better for the Nationals.
"It's really guys fighting for position, fighting for a spot next year," Detwiler said. "We showed today that we have a lot of those guys that the ownership will take a good look at next year, with the defense we played today, and the big innings we had."
With Zimmerman and Dunn out, manager Jim Riggleman moved Alberto Gonzalez to third base and Adam Kennedy to first, giving Detwiler what he called the best infield he's ever had behind him. The group hoovered up 15 ground ball outs, turning three double plays and sending Detwiler through six innings on just 79 pitches.
The left-hander, whose season had been truncated by hip surgery, used an effective changeup all day to compensate for the fact his delivery still isn't as strong as it could be. He left after six with the Nationals trailing 2-1, but they surged for four runs in the bottom of the inning to put him in line for the win.
Those runs came when Morse, who'd already homered in the second inning, shot a double over leaping third baseman Chris Johnson, scoring Desmond and Espinosa. Bernadina followed with a two-run homer, and the Nationals had a 5-2 lead they'd extend when Espinosa took a hard swing at a Gustavo Chacin fastball, sending it a couple rows past the Astros' bullpen.
All four players have the potential to be in the middle of the Nationals' plans next year, though it's far from a sure thing that any of them will be starting next year. But they're sure to be mindful of what Desmond did last year, playing his way into a starting job with an impressive September.
And on Thursday, they made Kasten's sales pitch sound more like a proclamation.
"That's what we expect (of them). That's what they expect of themselves, too," Zimmerman said. "We're a young team with some very good players. Today kind of showed what kind of depth we can have and what kind of team we can have moving forward."