Ted Leavengood: Winning a championship, one series at a time

There was too much Sterling Marte and A.J. Burnett in Pittsburgh, too little Bryce Harper. Yet the Nationals still looked like the better team when all was said and done. The Pirates are capable of beating anyone. They won their series against the Nationals in 2012 and recently swept the Atlanta Braves.

Pittsburgh has an obvious weakness in their bullpen, however. They lead the league in bases on balls and a good team will exploit that. On Saturday night, the Nats’ veteran hitters took the walks and let their teammates drive them in. Too often this season, that strategy would have failed. But the younger Washington hitters took their game up a notch this weekend and made it work.

Although the two-run single by Wilson Ramos was the key hit in the game Saturday, the sacrifice flies won the game in the end. Tyler Moore’s was the decisive blow, but Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche got the runs home from the third base earlier in the game. There had been too many times in this young season when both LaRoche and Desmond would have gone down swinging in that situation.

The most discussed trend in the game today is the proliferation of strikeouts. Current rates are at all-time highs. The modern hitter gets three strikes and he wants the most out of every one. Choking up on the bat to move the runner or shortening a swing to score the man from third seems a lost art at times. But the Nationals went back to fundamentals this weekend and the results were sweet.

The prettiest at-bats of the weekend belonged to Moore. He battled for every bit of success he had. It did not come easy. After the game-winning sac fly Saturday, he looked just as lost at the plate Sunday afternoon as he has all year. He struck out looking three tines, uncertain on pitches too close to take. But when the chips were all in, so was Moore. In the eighth inning, the Pirates were chipping away at the Nats’ lead, behind by only a run. Moore had one last chance. Pittsburgh walked LaRoche intentionally, putting two runners aboard to get to Moore.

As he did the night before, Moore battled his way deep into the at-bat. With two strikes, he fouled off a tough slider. Then, on the sixth pitch of the at-bat, he just tried to make contact. It was almost an excuse-me home run that somehow managed to carry the left field wall. He got enough wood on it, enough muscle behind it, to make the stands. And that was all she wrote. Final score: 6-2.

Early in the game, Danny Espinosa hit a very different home run. The second baseman twitches when the pitcher throws the high hard one even when he doesn’t take the bait. He is the consummate modern hitter who wants to rip at everything. And when he connects, the ball travels a long way like it did at PNC Park on Sunday. His two-run home run in the fourth inning carried well into the left field stands, bounding into the concourse.

But his best at bat - perhaps all year - came in the second inning. He refused to chase two fastballs out of the zone and a curve in the dirt to get the count in his favor. LaRoche had doubled Ryan Zimmerman to third after Zimmerman took a walk. There was one out and Espinosa needed to make contact to get the run home, to move the narrative away from the horrible first inning that Gio Gonzalez somehow survived. Any kind of base hit would have been a huge victory and Espinosa made solid contact on the third fastball. It was still an out, but one that scored a run. Another sac fly, one that tied the score and erased any lingering trace of Gonzalez’s near disaster.

When a team or player is at their best, they say the game slows down. Some of the young Nationals players looked like they were moving just a bit slower last weekend. They stole bases, not on their speed but by picking their chances against a weaker catcher. They were not playing slow baseball so much as smart baseball, and it made all the difference in the world.

Winning a championship one series at a time, that’s what this beautiful weekend in Pittsburgh looked like from our seats at PNC Park. Slow as the mighty river inching its way to the sea on the other side of the wall.

Ted Leavengood is author of “Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball,” released in June 2011. He serves as managing editor of the popular Seamheads.com national baseball blog and co-hosts with Chip Greene the “Outta the Parkway” Internet radio show. His work appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s effort to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of the Internet. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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