The Nationals won for the sixth straight time Thursday night, in a fashion they'd probably care not to repeat. Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen each gave up home runs, forcing the game into extra innings and necessitating Danny Espinosa's walk-off home run in the 10th. But in doing so, the Nationals showed themselves, once again, that they can have plenty of confidence in the way they're playing.
We've been hearing manager Jim Riggleman and players say for weeks that the Nationals are better than what they've shown, and how things would eventually turn around. When the team had lost 10 of 12 at the end of last month, that had started to sound farcical. But, as it turns out, it was as much about convincing themselves it was true as it was about putting on a brave face for the public.
In a 162-game season, where winning five out of every nine games is the typical benchmark for a playoff spot, success isn't as much about excellence as it is about consistency and mental fortitude. Great teams know how to stop losing streaks by steeling themselves against trouble and showing up to the ballpark unconcerned with what has happened in the past. The Nationals' 2010 season went awry when they stopped being able to halt losing streaks in the final four months of the season. This year's team seems to be learning the age-old slump-busting trick that contenders know: Fake it 'til you make it.
"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," outfielder Laynce Nix said. "If we keep playing well and beating good teams, we'll start realizing we should compete and win these games."
Here are last night's awards:
Espinosa: Yes, he ended the Nationals' errorless streak at 130 2/3 innings when he got to a slow roller late and made an errant throw to first base. But he also had three hits, and came through again in not one, but two big spots with men on base and the game tied. In the fourth inning, he drove in a run with a single up the middle after the Cardinals had rallied from a 2-0 deficit, and he put a Fernando Salas changeup in the Nationals' bullpen in the 10th with two on. He's hitting .176 with the bases empty this year. But with men on, he's hitting .310.
John Lannan: For the fifth straight start, Lannan was sharp, needing just 86 pitches to get through seven innings and allowing only two runs on the Cardinals' two homers. Lannan's sinker was sharp again, and he threw fastballs on 51 of his 86 pitches against the best-hitting team in the National League. That's a sign of a pitcher who's got confidence in his stuff.
Sean Burnett: It was serendipitous that Burnett wound up in the game at all - the Nationals haven't been using him in big spots lately, and the only reason he pitched in the 10th inning with the game tied was because Clippard and Storen gave up homers, forcing extra innings. But Burnett got back to throwing his sinker effectively, firing it on 14 of 16 pitches in the 10th. He got Albert Pujols to pop up with it, and he froze Lance Berkman with a sinker on the outside corner - or maybe just off the outside corner - for a called third strike to end the inning. MASNsports.com's Byron Kerr wrote more about Burnett's night here.
Clippard and Storen: The two relievers have been close to automatic this season, and they certainly weren't going to be all season. Their hiccups came at bad times last night, with the Nationals on the verge of sweeping the Cardinals. Clippard put a fastball higher than he would have liked to Pujols, who did what he does with those pitches, putting it in the Cardinals' bullpen. And Storen left a sinker up to Yadier Molina, who hit it out to tie the game in the ninth.
In Case You Missed It:
* Lannan has always relied on his sinker to set up the rest of his pitches, but he's made it sharper lately by borrowing a technique Livan Hernandez uses in his pregame bullpen sessions. "Livo, if he's getting that outside pitch, you know he's going to have a good game. He told me, 'Make sure you have that pitch,' " Lannan said. "I just make sure that before every start, I don't move on to another pitch unless I'm comfortable with throwing (the sinker) any count, any time. That's what Livo does - he doesn't move until he's happy with the way he feels throwing the pitch. The curveball, slider, changeup, that's all going to be there. But as far as the sinker, you've got to make sure you've got it."
* The Nationals got two double plays among Lannan's 14 groundball outs, but Riggleman said after the game that Espinosa and Ian Desmond can get even better at turning them. "We've missed on some double plays," Riggleman said. "We get to the ball. Our range is outstanding. We've really played great defense, but we turned a couple tonight, and that's what we've got to do. We've missed on some double plays. Danny and Ian and myself, we talked about that on that recent road trip. As well as we've played, that's one area we've got to tighten up a little bit."
1. What's impressed you most about the Nationals' six-game win streak - the way they've pitched, their power surge, their defensive range or something else?
2. Judging by the poll we ran yesterday, most of you are happy to dream a little bit about where the Nationals could end up. More than 57 percent of you said you would start peeking at the standings with the Nationals out of last place in the National League East and only 5 1/2 games back of the Braves for the wild card spot. Does this streak feel real to you, or are you expecting a slip-up around the corner?
Leave your answers in the comments section. I'll have more later today.