CHICAGO — Washington Nationals Manager Davey Johnson has begun looking beyond this season. For days, he has dropped hints about squeezing more playing time for younger players over some slumping starters. Although General Manager Mike Rizzo said earlier this week he hadn’t given up on the Nationals’ postseason hopes, both he and Johnson are aware of the long odds the Nationals face.
“We’re not in the position I’d like to be in, but there is a necessity to look at some guys,” Johnson said before Wednesday’s game at Wrigley Field. “. . . Going forward, I’m going to be doing a little bit of platooning, which I don’t feel I needed to do early. But guys haven’t performed at the level they’re supposed to be performing at. So I’ll give some other guys an opportunity to be in a semi-platoon role.”
Perhaps it’s a motivational tactic by the veteran manager, perhaps it’s just Johnson being a realist. Either way, the team’s veteran hitters appeared to get the message — at least for a night — in an 11-6 win.
Jayson Werth’s torrid hitting continued with a three-run homer in the third that staked veteran starter Ross Ohlendorf to a 6-1 lead. Ohlendorf and rookie long reliever Tanner Roark gave the entire margin back in the fifth as the Cubs knotted the game at 6. But Scott Hairston delivered a pinch-hit three-run homer in the seventh to break the game back open and Denard Span and Ryan Zimmerman, two veteran cogs in the lineup, added run-scoring hits in the eighth to put the game out of reach.
“Eleven runs?” Johnson said. “You’d think it’s Christmas.”
Said Werth: “I know [a comeback] can happen. I haven’t given up hope. I haven’t stopped believing in this season. My focus is on the task at hand and this season. I also realize what has to happen. You can really only take care of yourself. We probably can only lose maybe 10 more games. Maybe. That’s if one of those other teams loses a lot of games.”
While the team’s regulars delivered the win, the Nationals still trail the Cincinnati Reds by 91 / 2 games for the second wild-card spot with 35 games left in the season. Mathematically, the Nationals are still alive and hoping for the magical run that has eluded them all season. But they are quietly practical. Rosters expand in 10 days and more youngsters will be on the way. Developing players already on the roster, such as Tyler Moore, will become a priority.
On the mound on Wednesday, two parts of the roster collided. Ohlendorf, 31, returned after missing three weeks with right shoulder inflammation. An unheralded offseason minor league signing that has worked out well for the Nationals, the veteran fired four strong innings before faltering in the fifth.
The Nationals then turned to Roark, whose potential may earn him a few starts down the stretch.
Ohlendorf allowed a leadoff single to Logan Watkins and then induced a groundout from Starlin Castro. Zimmerman started a potential double play but Steve Lombardozzi’s relay was too late to get Castro. Two pitches later, Anthony Rizzo clobbered a two-run homer onto Sheffield Avenue. A five-run lead was chopped to three with one monstrous swing. Roark erased the rest.
After Rizzo’s home run, Roark got up in the bullpen in foul territory along the first base side. A large contingent of family and friends in the right field chanted his name and cheered for Roark, a native of nearby Wilmington, Ill. They watched Roark surrender four straight singles, a sacrifice fly, three runs and earn a visit from pitching coach Steve McCatty.
The Nationals built the cushion thanks to back-to-back three-run innings against Jake Arrieta. With the bases loaded in the second inning, Kurt Suzuki drilled a single past first baseman Rizzo that plated two runs. A safety squeeze by Ohlendorf with Lombardozzi running from third tacked on another run.
Werth’s three-run blast in the third, a bomb to left that came on a 3-0 pitch from Arrieta, appeared to set the Nats up to cruise to their second win of this four-game series. He is hitting .458 for the month and .330 for the season.
The blown lead, however, set the stage for Hairston’s homer. The Nationals acquired the right-handed outfielder from the Cubs in early July to help address the team’s struggling bench and ineffectiveness against left-handed pitching. In his 35 at-bats since becoming a National, he managed only seven hits, a .200 average.
After Bryce Harper doubled in the seventh inning and Werth was intentionally walked, Johnson sent Hairston out to pinch hit against left-hander James Russell. Hairston smashed a 1-2 change-up deep into the left field seats against his old teammates.
“Moving forward, in the long run, a lot of us individually are starting to come together,” Hairston said. “The younger players are learning about themselves as individual players. There’s been a lot of growth the last few weeks even though we haven’t been playing like we should. Whatever the case may be, our goal right now is getting to the postseason. Our focus is on that now. When it’s all said and done, each of us as players is getting an idea of what we can do and not do.”