Staring down a large deficit and improbable run toward a playoff berth, Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson remained confident. He spoke before Friday’s game in an earnest tone, not with defiance or arrogance. The season around him has sputtered for months. Because of the disappointing state of both teams, an early August matchup between the Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies lacked luster. But with 48 games left, Johnson wasn’t about to give up.
“There’s no resignation in that room over there,” Johnson said, pointing to the Nationals’ clubhouse down the hallway, “and certainly not with me.”
The Nationals stomped the Phillies, 9-2, and overcame some of the season-long weaknesses that put them in this position. Dan Haren allowed only two runs in seven innings as he continued his second-half resurgence. The offense smacked six extra-base hits, including two home runs, and delivered often missing big hits with runners on base. Left-handed hitters Adam LaRoche and Denard Span snapped out of season-long struggles against left-handed pitching and helped hang eight runs on old friend John Lannan.
The drubbing of the Phillies may have provided a reprieve from the misery of earlier this week — a three-game sweepby the National League East-leading Atlanta Braves — but it couldn’t erase four months of uneven play. The Nationals remain 151 / 2 games out of the NL East race, a margin unlikely to be wiped away. They trail the Cincinnati Reds for the second wild-card spot by nine games, not an impossible deficit to overcome but certainly a daunting one.
“We’re to the point where we can’t even really watch the scoreboard,” Haren said. “We just have to worry about going out there and winning games. [Friday] was a start. We’re going to have to go on a run obviously. We’re not going to get back in this thing taking two out of three. We’re going to have to sweep some series, and definitely the chips are stacked against us.”
The Nationals have been reflective in recent days — with Jayson Werth all but proclaiming the season had reached a point of no return after the Braves sweep — and it likely will continue over the next few weeks. What went so wrong for a ballclub with so much talent and promise? Johnson has wrestled for an answer. Maybe the team put too much pressure on itself. The bullpen, bench and offensive struggles didn’t help.
“Everybody has to contribute,’ Johnson said. “Myself and everybody around here, we’re all partially to blame because we’re all not doing the things we’re capable of doing. It’s very simple. . . . There’s a lot of pride. The makeup [of the team] will really show these last 48 games.”
One of the players who beat himself up after vicious struggles was Haren. Before he landed on the disabled list, Haren had a 6.15 ERA and led the majors in home runs allowed. When Haren returned from the disabled list, he scrapped everything and just pitched.
“I was a bad start or two away from getting released probably,” he said. “That’s just the truth of it, I think. I definitely feel way better the way I’m pitching now, and this is more me.”
Since July 1, he has a 2.43 ERA over six starts and has allowed just two home runs. Haren pounded the lower portion of the strike zone against the Phillies, and it worked. He became the 13th pitcher in major league history — and third active — to defeat all 30 teams in his career. His cutter has been sharper, his splitter slightly slower and more effective and his command improved.
“On the mound I’ve been reminding myself pre-pitch to keep the ball down,” Haren said.
The Nationals also neutralized another major reason they struggled so much this season. They entered the game with a major league-worst .215 average against left-handed pitchers.
Wilson Ramos singled off Lannan to lead off the second inning, and Anthony Rendon followed by clobbering a 2-2 fastball to the seats in center field. Three batters later and with two outs, Ryan Zimmerman drilled a solo home run, his 13th, and gave the Nationals a 3-0 lead.
The one-night renaissance continued an inning later. With Ian Desmond on second following a one-out double, LaRoche drilled a ball to center field that was just out of reach of a diving Michael Martinez for an RBI double. Entering the game, LaRoche was hitting .184 against left-handed pitching this season — nearly 60 points below his career average.
Span, also far below his career average with a .151 average against left-handers, joined the hitting spree as well with a two-run single in the fifth to cap a four-run inning. Bryce Harper joined the revival in the eighth inning when he singled in a run off left-handed reliever Raul Valdes.
From the dugout, Johnson watched. In his nearly five decades in baseball, he has learned to be patient. Maybe now with the pressure off, he reasoned, the Nationals could play.
“We still need to grow,” he said. “Now is a good time. Everybody has written us off. Now is a good time to do something special.”