The first 30 games Davey Johnson has managed for the Nationals must have felt a little like an out-of-body experience. The manager who'd built his career with teams that could mash the ball out of the ballpark, who preaches his mantra of "score early and defend late," found himself back in a major league dugout for the first time in 11 years with a team that could neither score early nor late, and had trouble defending late for the first time all year.
The Nationals went 12-18 in those games, losing three of the four where they scored more than five runs and winning only one by five or more. And that game, a 7-2 victory over the Dodgers on July 22, was a one-run game until Jerry Hairston Jr. hit a grand slam in the ninth inning.
On Tuesday night, though, Johnson finally got the kind of game he wanted. The Nationals scored their first two runs with aggressive baserunning - Jayson Werth stealing second, advancing to third on a wild throw and scoring on a sacrifice fly, and Jonny Gomes sliding across the top of the batters' box to take out catcher David Ross on a play at the plate while touching home with his right hand. And then, the bats took over. Rick Ankiel thumped a grand slam to dead center for his third homer in two games, Ian Desmond took a line drive over the left-field wall in the fifth and Michael Morse chimed in with a jaw-dropping shot in the sixth: an opposite-field blast that reached the second deck in right center.
With all the runs he needed, John Lannan could pitch through early troubles and into the seventh inning. Henry Rodriguez struck out four of the game's final eight batters. The Nationals' 9-3 win over the Braves, finally, went according to Johnson's plan.
"This was my kind of game," Johnson said with a toothy grin. "I haven't had any yet. I've been here five weeks, and I've been waiting for one like this."
The question now is whether the Nationals can keep it up; Johnson thinks they can, and players in their clubhouse have been insisting for weeks that this is an offense capable of doing damage on a regular basis. In theory, it would seem like some of the pieces are there; the Nationals have two accomplished hitters (Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth) in the middle of their lineup, are getting breakout seasons from Michael Morse and Danny Espinosa and have a catcher in Wilson Ramos who might reach double digit homers.
But they've been worse than anyone in the majors at getting their leadoff hitter on base, and they'll try to piece the lineup together at least for now with Ankiel, who's hitting .328 with five homers since July 1 but hasn't hit leadoff in a career where he has a .312 on-base percentage. Still, they're starting to see Werth surge (he's hitting .348 in his last 12 games), they're getting offense from Zimmerman (.416 in his last 11) and Morse (.353 with three homers in his last 26), and they've got Desmond clicking in the No. 7 spot; he's hitting .285 in his last seven games since Johnson moved him out of the No. 8 hole.
"We've been kind of scuffling with runners in scoring position all year, and it was nice to be a part of that," said Desmond, who had a sacrifice fly before his homer. "The offense in general, everyone's getting on base. You're getting a little action instead of hitting with the bases empty all the time."
They've won four straight games now, and they'll have a chance to sweep the Braves on Wednesday afternoon. And for once, they played the kind of game their manager had been waiting to see.
"It's nice to see it. We haven't seen it all year long," Johnson said. "This was fun today."