Nationals’ ability to win when they’re not at their best illustrates ballclub’s resiliency


Ryan Zimmerman (11) hits a two-run home run in the fourth inning of the Nationals’ game against the Brewers at Nationals Park on Sunday. Zimmerman also had an error in the ninth inning, but the good has outweighed the bad for Washington this year. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Jayson Werth looked at Milwaukee’s outfielders, playing with their heels near the Nationals Park warning track with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game Sunday. Swift Anthony Rendon was on first base for the Nationals.

“I liked what I saw — a lot of [open] room out there in the outfield. That ‘no-doubles’ defense in baseball is like the prevent defense in football. It can kill you,” Werth said after his walk-off RBI double gave the Nats a 5-4 victory and a series win over the tough Brewers.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

The gap between baseball as it is analyzed, by fans and media, and baseball as it is actually played by major leaguers is sometimes enormous. Every aspect of this back-and-forth game seemed designed to illustrate it. This was inside-baseball, detail-baseball — the side of the sport that probes for every tiny physical or mental weakness on the other side. And it was resilient, never-give-up, gritty baseball, too.

“There are things you can’t quantify, things that have nothing to do with numbers and statistics but everything to do with baseball,” Werth said. “This game was full of them.”

Including the game-winning play.

Werth knew he not only had a far better chance to land a hit in front of the Milwaukee outfield but that the outfielders were so deep Rendon would probably score anyway on a ball in the gaps or down either line. The Brewers’ best chance was probably to play normal depth and hope to cut the ball off sooner — do or die.

Werth lashed a liner toward the “Natitude” sign down the left field line. “We try to identify how we can take advantage of a defender,” Werth said. The Nats had spotted left fielder Khris Davis’s arm as a weak point on a strong Brewers team. By the time the ultra-deep Davis reached Werth’s smash, he was two feet from the fence anyway. What good had “no doubles” done him?

“With ol’ Bob [No Stop] Henley [coaching] at third, I assumed he’d send Anthony,” Werth said.

Rendon scored without a play at the plate as the Nats celebrated a series win over the Brewers.

For much of this game, the Brewers were the alert, opportunistic team. Two of their runs scored on “fielder’s choices.” What’s a fielder’s choice? At times, it’s technical baseball terminology for how the heck did that happen? We have to call it something. Let’s pretend that extra base was acquired because a fielder — somewhere — made a “choice,” even though he kind of didn’t.

On the first fielder’s choice, Ryan Braun scored from second base on a dribbler back to pitcher Gio Gonzalez. On the second, Jean Segura scored from third on a routine grounder to shortstop even though the Nats’ defense was playing in — just so he couldn’t score on exactly such a play.

How did the Brewers do it? “Great timing, instincts by Braun. He was stealing [third], and Gio had his back turned when he lobbed it to me,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who didn’t even bother to make a throw home. Segura timed his break from third perfectly the instant Ian Desmond threw to first base. Segura also knew the throw to home would be a hair tougher for a lefty first baseman like LaRoche. Safe by a yard.

The Nats also had a man picked off first base, a man doubled off third base on a liner and watched as Gonzalez became distracted after his 1,000th career strikeout. Gio tossed the souvenir ball into the Nats’ dugout, then lost his focus and walked two men, who both scored. The Nats gave the Brewers a bases-loaded, one-out opportunity on a Ryan Zimmerman throwing error and watched Rafael Soriano blow a save in the ninth after he had walked the tying run into scoring position.

That’s enough mistakes to lose a whole series, especially against a team like the Brewers, who began the day tied for first place in the NL Central. Yet the Nats won the game and the series.

“Even though we screw up, we’ve been taught since we were kids that it’s not how many times you mess up, it’s how many times you bounce back,” said reliever Craig Stammen, who probably preserved this win by getting eight straight outs after Gonzalez was knocked out early in the fourth inning. “This team keeps competing.”

Part of that competitiveness may be from Manager Matt Williams’s intensity. “The fans see that ‘look,’ ” Stammen said of Williams’s hard stare. “Well, that’s the look we get [from him]. That’s how he played.”

In his only time at the plate with two outs and Jose Lobaton on second base, Stammen battled Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo through a long at-bat and finally produced a 30-foot dribbler. Somehow, he beat it out. “Speed never slumps,” Drew Storen teased Stammen, who’s not fast. What Stammen did do was hustle in an apparently hopeless situation and do it with menace. “If somebody had gotten in my way [on a close play at first], it might not have felt good for ’em,” Stammen said.

“We respect all the numbers and statistics in the game,” said LaRoche, adding sarcastically, “but this game is absolutely full of stuff that you can’t take to arbitration [for a higher salary]. And those plays — and those kinds of players — win you games. It’s a game of split seconds and half steps. Which outfielder creeps over and really tries to cut off the ball in the gap so you can’t go first to third?”

LaRoche didn’t say it, but he went first-to-third on an inattentive Braun while the batter, Desmond, took second on Braun’s late throw to third. “That was my favorite play of the game — Desmond reading the throw and getting into scoring position,” said Werth, even though it didn’t result in a run.

The statistics, trends, matchups and all other parts of the game that outsiders can sift and weigh for insight into the sport truly do matter. But they should never detract or distract us from the rich detail, the resilient grit and the split-second excitement of the game itself. The sport withers when we try to grip it too tightly, pretending that we can come very close to understanding it.

“This is the kind of win that can get you started on a nice streak,” Stammen said as the Nats head to Colorado to face the battered, hard-luck Rockies.

The battle between the Nats’ mistakes, on the one hand, and their combination of talent and resiliency on the other has played out all season. At 53-43, is there a difference now?

“We’re finally at full strength for the first time all year,” Werth said. “If you believe this team can go on a run, then you have to like where we are now.”

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