He felt too good to let convention sideline him, so before Wilson Ramos left Nationals Park on Saturday night, he sought out his manager. Catchers, according to baseball’s accepted wisdom, do not start when a day game follows a night game. Ramos didn’t care. Coming off the disabled list, he needed rhythm for his swing, not rest for his legs. He told Matt Williams, “I want to play tomorrow.”
Williams complied Saturday night, and Ramos delivered Sunday afternoon. Ramos powered the Washington Nationals to a 6-3 victory over the New York Mets, driving in four runs and scoring one himself, announcing his presence in a lineup that he knows needs him. Hours after Gio Gonzalez became the latest key National to hit the disabled list, Ian Desmond continued his offensive revival with a mammoth solo home run, Jordan Zimmermann pitched six innings and the Nationals’ bullpen dominated with three more scoreless frames.
But if Ramos had not talked his way into the lineup, the Nationals may not have taken the series from the Mets. Ramos missed all of April on the DL after he broke his left hamate bone opening day, and confidence in the strength of his hand had been slow to return — he was hitting .154 as Sunday began. But he felt his swing coming along, and Williams batted him cleanup again.
“Every time I play some games straight, I feel better at the plate, more consistent,” Ramos said. “That’s what I want to do. I want to be consistent day-by-day and try to help the team.”
The Nationals have sent half their lineup and two-fifths of their rotation to the disabled list. They have yet to fully shake their proclivity for shoddy defense and disastrous starts. They stopped hitting at the end of April. And where have all those maladies and deficiencies and headaches led them? A half-game behind the Atlanta Braves for first place in the National League East.
“I think we got a bunch of gamers in there that want to play,” Williams said. “It’s not always going to go our way. But they’re ready every day.”
Is May too early to scoreboard watch? Not for the Nationals. Players and coaches lingered in the clubhouse to watch the Cardinals try to close out a one-run lead. They groaned and shouted at the television as Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal walked home the tying run with a borderline, 3-2 pitch. The Braves eventually won, keeping the Nationals from taking over first.
“We definitely feel like we have some better baseball in us,” relief pitcher Tyler Clippard said. “We don’t feel like we’ve played our best yet. At the end of the day, we’re happy to be where we’re at. The vibes are good right now.”
The Nationals entered the weekend with fewer runs scored in May than any team in the majors. Still, they have been kept afloat by the Braves’ floundering, just enough timely hits and especially their bullpen’s dominance. Drew Storen, Clippard and Rafael Soriano retired all nine hitters they faced and lowered the bullpen’s collective ERA to 2.07.
“We feel very confident,” said Clippard, whose perfect eighth was his 10th consecutive scoreless inning. “We’re in that mode right now — just give us the lead, and we’ll do our thing.”
Before the relievers took over, Zimmermann allowed three runs over six innings. He also sparked a fifth-inning rally with a leadoff single. Denard Span followed with a double, and Anthony Rendon’s walk loaded the bases for the heart of the order.
Jayson Werth endangered the rally with a popup to shallow center. Up came Ramos, the man the Nationals wanted at the plate. He possesses a knack for clutch hits. The moment will not rattle him, and his strength allows him to fight off tough pitches into the outfield and crush mistakes into gaps.
“I just concentrate on waiting for my pitch and making good contact,” Ramos said. “That’s what I’m waiting for. I’m not looking for homers.”
Wheeler fired a fastball over the inside corner, and Ramos muscled the ball into left field. Two runs scored, and the Nationals lengthened their lead to 5-1. After Desmond ended the inning with a double play, Ramos’s hit only seemed more clutch.
And Ramos had already provided one enormous hit. In the third, with the score tied at 1, he came up with two on and two outs after shortstop Ruben Tejada booted Werth’s grounder. Ramos drilled a 1-1 slider into the left-center field gap. Werth motored home from first, and the Nationals took a lead they would not relinquish.
“He gets up there with guys in scoring position, and he knows what to do,” Williams said. “His heart rate doesn’t increase. That’s key for anybody in the middle of a lineup. It’s no different at-bat just because there’s guys out there.”
The Mets scored the game’s first run in the second, but Desmond answered immediately. He led off the bottom of the inning. Wheeler threw him a 1-1, 94-mph fastball. Desmond annihilated it. The ball soared six rows over the visitors’ bullpen, one of the longest homers ever launched at Nationals Park.
Desmond had upped his homer total to seven, the most on the Nationals, by blasting one for the second game in a row. Desmond was hitting .214 after the season’s first 36 games, but in the last seven games, Desmond is 9 for 26 with three homers.
“It’s a work in progress,” Desmond said Saturday. “A continual work in progress. The thing that’s tough is maintaining the character and all the other stuff while you’re going through this stuff. That’s the hardest part. Going 0 for 4 or 15 or 30 or whatever, that’s all stuff we’ve gone through. Maintaining your personality, that’s a struggle. And that’s what I’m kind of grinding through right now.”
All year, the Nationals have grinded through their own unexpected trials. They moved ahead after losing Gonzalez with a victory. Next come the Cincinnati Reds, and the Nationals are far more focused on them than any misfortune.
“Everybody in the clubhouse feels that we’ve got a chance every day, and they prepare themselves and they’re ready to go regardless of who’s in the lineup,” Williams said. “That’s comforting. That’s a good thought.”