SAN DIEGO - This Nationals roster was constructed to win games like Sunday's, and the half-dozen like it the team has played since jetting three time zones west. In their ideal state, the Nationals should be swallowing up ground balls, chasing down would-be base hits in the outfield and pitching well enough to get the ball to a deep bullpen. Hitting, as outfielder Jayson Werth put it on Saturday, is not a bonus, but it's also not designed to be the way the Nationals win.
Of course, things haven't played out as the Nationals planned them. They were one of baseball's worst defensive teams the first month of the season. They've played just eight games with Ryan Zimmerman. And their bullpen, which looked to be well-stocked at the beginning of the year, has sprung enough leaks that they've had to ask Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen to pitch more often than they'd like.
Flaws and all, though, the Nationals are winning games at the moment because they've been able to replicate some aspects of the way they planned to play all along. They haven't made an error in 104 2/3 innings, breaking a franchise record that dated back to 1977, and they had their first winning record on a multi-city road trip since May 2008. They got another superb start from Jordan Zimmermann on Sunday, who's charging to the front of a staff that's outperformed expectations. And after Todd Coffey pitched a scoreless eighth, Storen came in to get his 15th save of the year.
The offense? That's still a big problem. The Nationals won 2-0 on Sunday, and took three of four from the Padres in a series where they scored nine runs. Their drastic lineup shift hasn't produced anything in the first two games - Werth is 0-for-8 in his first two games as the new leadoff hitter. But while they're winning almost in spite of their offense, they're still winning.
"When we started out the season, this team wanted to play better defense and clean baseball," Werth said. "There's only one thing we need to do more - we need to hit. But it was a good road trip. And if we're going to win ballgames two-nothing, that's what we're going to do."
They scored 31 runs on this 11-game trip to the West Coast - and five of those came in the 11th inning last Sunday in Arizona, in a game the Nationals would have won 4-1 had Storen not blown a save. But their starting staff has a 2.35 ERA since May 31, and has allowed two runs or fewer in 11 of 13 games since then.
"I've never had a club that has done that, anywhere," manager Jim Riggleman said. "It's just really good pitching. ... When your starters get you 18 to 21 outs, you've got a really good chance, because you're going to get some matchups that you prefer late in the ballgame.'
Those came on Sunday because of Zimmermann, whose seven shutout innings and 10 strikeouts only earned him a no-decision. But it, and the other starts he's had lately, earned him something else: respect.
Zimmermann has allowed 13 runs in his last eight starts dating back to May 1, and according to Bill James' Game Score statistic, his start on Sunday (which scored an 80) was the best of his career, beating his 79 from last August 30. And by the way, it was five points better than anything Stephen Strasburg put up last year.
It wouldn't be Zimmermann's nature to push his name into the conversation of the National League's best starters - they're more soft-spoken than that in his native Wisconsin - but let's just say he's nudging himself onto the edges of it.
"I think he's recognized as that," Riggleman said. "It's early in his career. I like to let him go out there and do his think. He's a pretty low-key guy. He doesn't get too high or too low. The No. 1 thing is health, and I'm just really proud of him the way he's battled through the adversity (of Tommy John surgery) earlier and worked so hard to get where he was at."
They've had the pitching, and they've had the defense. The third stake - the offense - isn't in the ground yet. But the Nationals plan to get Ryan Zimmerman back from the disabled list on Tuesday, and they're counting on the two-time Silver Slugger winner to give them a lift.
If he does, the Nationals may be as close to locking in their formula for success as they've been in a while.
"The whole season, we've felt we're very close to getting on that run," infielder Alex Cora said. "Hopefully Zim comes back sooner than later. That's going to help. I think the roster's going to get better. He's a game-changer. Every piece is going to fall into place, and hopefully we can get hot."