“We have a long ways to go and we haven’t done anything yet,” Zimmerman said. “But what we have done is kind of give this city a baseball team to cheer for.”
The Nationals thrashed the Cardinals, the defending World Series champions and a playoff contender again this year, in every way the sport allows. Gonzalez fired the first shutout of his career. Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper formed a nightmare at the top of the order. The Nationals’ defense toggled between flawless and spectacular. A check of the records shows that yes, they really did lose five straight last week.
Before the Nationals finished a two-game series in Miami, Manager Davey Johnson gathered his players for a team meeting. The Nationals have since outscored the opposition 26-5, including 18-1 against the Cardinals, who came here with the best run differential in the major leagues.
“That’s what a great manager does,” Gonzalez said. “A great manager sees a little glitch in the system, he fixes it up and gets us back going.”
Johnson likes big, round numbers. Here’s one: The Nationals have won 80 games, the same total as all of last year. And here’s another: With an even 30 games to play, the Nationals’ magic number to win the National League East is 25.
They huddled around clubhouse televisions and watched it get there together. In Atlanta, Philadelphia Phillies catcher Erik Kratz launched a game-tying homer against the Braves in the ninth inning. The room “went nuts,” reliever Ryan Mattheus said. Minutes later, John Mayberry Jr. blasted the go-ahead homer. “He got him!” one player yelled.
“It’s way more fun than anything I’ve done in the past,” Zimmerman said.
Friday’s laundry list of contributors starts with Gonzalez, who allowed five hits, walked three and struck out eight. None of the Cardinals’ starters had faced Gonzalez except Carlos Beltran, who came in 0 for 3. They had never seen his three-quarters arm angle, his late-breaking curveball or his cutting, biting fastball.
Gonzalez had always found his curveball later in starts. Friday night, he had it primed from the first inning. He spotted fastball down in the strike zone on both sides of the plate. He retired the first nine batters, the Nationals’ defense helped him with three double plays, and the Cardinals had still not touched home after eight.
“I think he’s still getting better,” said Suzuki, who caught Gonzalez for four years in Oakland. “And that says a lot because of how good he is right now.”