The Nationals held the Pirates off in a 4-2 win on Monday night because of a couple strong throws, a sliding catch, a nice scoop and a whole lot of bad baserunning decisions - or essentially, the margin by which the Nationals have lost countless games the last two seasons.
There have been few wins this year that crystallized the difference in the way the Nationals are doing business this year better than Monday's victory. They ran into a struggling team that had lost five straight and looked plenty willing to fork over chances to win the game. The Nationals, for a change, were in position to take them.
They held the Pirates scoreless in the fourth inning, getting an out at third base after Brandon Wood foolishly tried to run from first to third on a shallow single and catching Chris Snyder in a rundown between third and home after Paul Maholm failed to get a squeeze bunt down. Jayson Werth's sliding sno-cone catch in the fifth saved another run. And even after the Pirates tied the game in the seventh on Andrew McCutchen's triple, Cole Kimball - three days out of Triple-A Syracuse - shut them down to keep the game even.
It's the kind of game that, quite simply, the Nationals have lost in the past. They got a clutch homer from Danny Espinosa from the left side of the plate, scoring Michael Morse, another struggling hitter who'd singled to start the rally in the seventh. But the reason the Nationals won this game, ultimately, is because they were better at taking away scoring chances than the Pirates were.
Their defensive numbers are still in the bottom third of the National League because of their 22-error start in March and April. But the Nationals have made just two errors this month, with shortstop Ian Desmond settling down on routine plays and Jerry Hairston Jr. playing a solid third base. And even though their offense is still hurting, the Nationals are using the formula they thought they'd have all along: Get a starting pitcher into the sixth inning, take away a base hit or two on defense and use a deep bullpen to win.
And in the next two weeks, they'll have a chance to pad their record after starting the year with one of the game's toughest schedules. The Nationals face the Mets after concluding their series with the Pirates, then have nine games against the Orioles, Brewers and Padres. That's another 12 games against losing teams, and if the Nationals can take seven or eight of them, they'll head into Memorial Day weekend over .500.
Whatever they get, it's going to be largely through the method they used on Monday. And against opponents like the Pirates, that method has a chance to produce some gains.