The Nationals won for the 71st time, already two more victories than last season, and broke their tie with the Mets for third place in the National League East. They have bounced back immediately from their 3-12 freefall thanks to a starting rotation reworked with next year in mind. The Nationals have never finished higher than fourth. Miles from playoff contention, they can still have their own race.
“I’m definitely aware of it,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “I think it has some significance. We try and win every game we play. That’s the immediate focus – win today’s game. After that, it’s nicer to finish in third than it is fourth. There’s probably more of a psychological significance more than anything else. We’re just trying to grind out every game.”
They sealed Thursday’s victory with a three-run run eighth inning and a four-run ninth, both of which included RBI hits from Desmond, who continued his season-transforming tear with a career day. Desmond has hit .294 since the all-star break with 17 extra-base hits in 56 games. In the first half, Desmond hit .223 with 18 extra-base hits in 85 games. Before Thursday, only four players in Nationals history had five hits in one game.
The final outburst came after Coffey held a more tenuous Nationals’ lead. Henry Rodriguez loaded the bases with a two-out walk, and with David Wright coming to the plate, Coffey thundered in from the bullpen.
Wright drove a fly ball deep to left, but Michael Morse settled under the ball in front of the warning track. Wright slammed his batting helmet down along the first base line, and Coffey walked off having performed the task he excels at most. This season, right-handed batters have hit .182 against him, including going 1 for their last 27.
Milone prospered Thursday by overcoming the most prominent blemish from his first two starts. Milone felt he needed to improve his approach pitching to hitters the second time he faced them. In his first two starts, opponents went 2 for 16 against him the first time through the lineup. Thereafter, they were 12 for 24.
The Nationals had a lead to protect thanks largely to Milone. The only trouble Milone found Thursday came at the start, and he wriggled out of that. Ruben Tejada led off with a double over Michael Morse’s head to left field, which Milone followed with a walk to Justin Turner. Milone handled all three outs himself — he induced a 1-4-3 double play ball from Wright and struck out Jason Bay flailing at a 79-mph changeup.
One the top of the Mets’ lineup came up for the second time, Milone retired 11 of 12 hitters, and the only one who reached base — Angel Pagan, with a single — Milone took care of himself. He fooled Pagan with a deft pickoff move, throwing to first as he looked at the plate, and ended up tagging him out in a rundown.
The only run Milone allowed scored after he left the game. Milone allowed a single to Wright with two outs in the sixth inning. Milone had thrown just 73 pitches, but he had waited out a 40-minute rain delay and Manager Davey Johnson has shown a proclivity for pulling his starter so the loss will not appear on his record. Johnson called for Collin Balester, who yielded an RBI double.
Afterward, just as happened to Peacock the night before, Milone had a whipped-cream pie smeared in his face by a teammate while conducting a television interview. The Nationals’ most urgent priority may not be winning, but it is much more fun when they do.