PHILADELPHIA — Quiet confidence flowed through the Washington Nationals’ dugout after the first inning Friday night, an odd commodity given the situation. Jayson Werth dropped a flyball, and Stephen Strasburg failed to pitch around his error. The Nationals rattled their own ace and handed a three-run lead to Cliff Lee, who does not pitch so much as he plays speed chess. Inside the dugout, no players or coaches said anything. No one needed to.
“It’s more the atmosphere of the team,” Werth said. “There’s no panic. There’s no sense we’re out of it. Last year sometimes, we’d give up some runs, it was like the game was over. You could just feel it. It was a lot like 2011, when I first got here.”
The start of the season’s second month continued to thicken the line between the Nationals’ 2013 and 2014. The early stages of a meltdown at Citizens Bank Park ceded to the Nationals’ 5-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, their ninth comeback win and latest bullpen beatdown.
Three innings after his dust-up with Lee emptied both dugouts, Denard Span’s leadoff double sparked a three-run, five-hit eighth-inning outburst against the Phillies’ implosive bullpen that turned a one-run deficit into Washington’s third straight win. Strasburg and Werth both made good — Strasburg finished with five scoreless innings, Werth added three hits and a walk against his old team.
“It’s just that they just keep trying, you know?” Manager Matt Williams said. “It’s easy to put it into cruise if you’re behind and say, ‘Oh, it’s not our night.’ But they don’t do that. They fight.”
Strasburg could not erase the effect of Werth’s error, but he afforded the Nationals an opportunity to creep back into the game. Strasburg allowed six hits and walked one, yielding no runs after the first. Circumstances dictated Williams lift him for a pinch hitter, but he could have gone deeper, needing just 83 pitches for six innings.
“That was a heck of an effort for him to shake off that first inning and settle down and pretty much give us a chance to win,” Span said.
Tyler Moore reprised his role as Lee’s nemesis. Williams gave him his fifth start of the season because of his history against Lee. After he blasted a solo home run in the third and scored the Nationals’ second run in the fifth after a leadoff single, Moore has gone 6 for 12 with two homers and three doubles against Lee.
“I don’t know, man,” Moore said. “He’s a good pitcher. He’s got really good stuff. I don’t know. I guess lucky, barrel some balls up against him.”
Moore’s offense and Strasburg’s dominance enabled the Nationals to creep within one run entering the eighth after Lee had been removed. Mike Adams was the first reliever through the bullpen gates, and the Nationals pounced.
Span ripped a leadoff double to right field, making it six straight innings in which the Nats’ first hitter reached. With Anthony Rendon at the plate, Span swiped third. Rendon smashed a single to center, and the Nationals tied the score.
They were far from finished. Werth rolled a single up the middle. Phillies Manager Ryne Sandberg called on hard-throwing lefty Jake Diekman to face Adam LaRoche, who smoked a 97-mph fastball into center field. Rendon slid headfirst into home as Ben Revere’s lollipop throw arced home, and the Nationals had taken their first lead. Ian Desmond then doubled home Werth. Five straight hits from their top five hitters had given the Nationals a 5-3 lead.
“I think now nobody worries about” falling behind, LaRoche said. “More than likely, we’re going to get something going. That’s kind of that attitude now. No panic. We don’t have to turn around and score three runs right now. Keep being patient. Put up good at-bats, and we’ll have a big inning.”
Hours earlier, the result seemed improbable. With two outs in the first and runners on the corners with two outs, Marlon Byrd popped a deep fly down the right field line. Sun and wind added to the degree of difficulty, but Werth should have made the catch. Instead, the ball plopped out of his glove, and the inning continued.
“I just didn’t catch it,” Werth said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever on a play like that not caught the ball.”
Three pitches later, Strasburg rifled a 2-2, 96-mph fastball over the outside part of the plate. Byrd lashed at the ball, and it screamed to right field. Werth drifted back again, but this time he could only look up, watch the wind carry the ball into the third row and regret.
“I felt like I gathered myself,” Strasburg said. “That inning, my fastball was up a little bit. I just made a bad pitch. I was able to settle down, get my fastball location a little bit better.”
As the Nationals scored their second run, the night briefly veered into controversy. Span stood in the batter’s box, twirling his bat. Lee, one of the quickest workers in the league, didn’t care. He fired an inside fastball.
“I made a pitch, and he was in the box and wasn’t ready,” Lee said. “I’ll do that every time. If they want to stand there and not look, I’ll take a strike every time.”
Typically gentle in nature, Span took exception. He glared at Lee until Lee looked at him. Span shrugged his shoulders and yelled, “Come on, man.”
“I’ve been quick-pitched before, but I’ve never been quick-pitched when I’m not looking and also quick-pitched up-and-in when I’m not looking,” Span said. “So that’s what bothered me. I didn’t like the fact he quick-pitched me, because he’s Cy Young. He can get guys out without doing that.”
Span whacked a groundout to second base, which scored Moore and cut the Nationals’ deficit to 3-2. As Span trotted across the infield to the Nationals’ dugout, Lee said something to him. Span stopped and turned. Both dugouts emptied. Ridiculously, relievers from both teams sprinted out of the same bullpen gate. Once the players met in the middle of the diamond, words far exceeded action.