Their previous surges have served only to tease, to make the ensuing stumbles more maddening. The Washington Nationals contend this time will be different. The Nationals have searched for reasons to believe their months-long bout with mediocrity would be temporary, and after they bludgeoned the San Diego Padres on Friday night, they may have their most valid one yet. Now that they are whole, the Nationals might be dangerous.
The Nationals’ jilted, battered fans may not believe them before they see it. They have offered promising signs before Friday’s 8-5 victory over reeling San Diego, and they all led back to the same disappointment. But those signs came before Bryce Harper returned to the middle of the lineup, before Wilson Ramos came back to catch and before Manager Davey Johnson tweaked the batting order.
“When you can lengthen the lineup out the way we’re able to when we’re healthy, my goodness,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “Everybody realizes, ‘If you’re not going to pitch to me, you got to pitch to him.’ That’s a good feeling. These guys, they feed off of each other.”
The Nationals, who sliced their National League East deficit to five games as Atlanta lost, have done their damage without Harper at his peak. Since hitting a homer in his first at-bat back from the disabled list, Harper has gone 0 for 18 with three walks and a handful of line drives that found gloves. Johnson plans to give Harper both Saturday and Sunday off, both a mental and physical break.
“He’s just grinding too hard,” Johnson said. “Coming back from the long layoff, I just need to back off him.”
Friday night, Gio Gonzalez earned his third consecutive win, dancing around early trouble to hold the Padres to three earned runs over 62 / 3 innings. In his second game back from the disabled list after missing 44, Ramos led the barrage with another three RBI, giving him eight in two games. “Not a bad eight hitter,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
Every position player in the Nationals’ starting lineup except Anthony Rendon (who walked and scored a run) and Harper (who drilled a sacrifice fly) recorded at least one hit. Jayson Werth, moved Thursday from second to sixth in the lineup, socked three hits for the second straight day.
“I like the way the lineup is swinging the bat, really,” Johnson said. “Good at-bats, quality at-bats. That’s what I’ve been looking for. That takes the pressure off everybody in the lineup.”
The Padres made the final margin more respectable when Carlos Quentin crushed a three-run homer off Craig Stammen. But the Nationals, on the power of a five-run second inning, had taken a massive lead and scored eight runs for the second consecutive day.
The Nationals will neither receive sympathy from opponents nor a re-do from the league. Most every team deals with injuries, and the Nationals allowed theirs to stall their season. In a small sample, though, the Nationals look like a different offense. Thursday, they played with their opening day lineup (save Rendon swapped in for the demoted Danny Espinosa) for the first time since April 13.
“We’re starting to get back healthy,” leadoff hitter Denard Span said. “Should be fun.”
In the Nationals’ past six games, they have averaged 6.7 runs despite scoring no runs in one of those games and one in another. Their pogo-stick offense has been good enough to push them back to two games above .500, their highest point since May 19.
The Nationals have reached two games over .500 five times since then. On the four prior occasions, they lost their next game. They have threatened to break through before, only to turtle back into their shell. Saturday, as near-certain all-star Jordan Zimmermann takes the mound, the Nationals have another chance against the Padres, who have lost seven straight games.
“We’re putting it together, especially with two outs,” Eckstein said. “They kind of looked a lot more comfortable in the situation. Before, it looked like they were trying really hard — ‘Okay, I’m going to do it!’ There’s a different calmness about them.”
Friday night, the Nationals struck after a sputtering start. Gonzalez surrendered an RBI double to Chase Headley in the first inning, and Padres right-hander Andrew Cashner followed with a 1-2-3 first.
Gonzalez promptly placed runners on second and third with no outs in the top of the second. Pitching in the humidity, “my arm felt a little heavy,” Gonzalez said. “I was trying to stay in the game as long as possible.”
He turned his night around before it could unravel. In his toughest spot Friday night, Gonzalez leaned on his curve. He whiffed Yasmani Grandal swinging at one in the dirt. Cashner whiffed gazing at one. Everth Cabrera flailed at another curve buried in the box.
The momentum from Gonzalez’s three straight strikeouts carried into the bottom of the inning. The Nationals loaded the bases with one out, bringing Ramos to the plate. In his last at-bat Thursday, Ramos blasted a tie-breaking, three-run homer in the seventh inning. Now, he cracked a single through the left side, scoring Ryan Zimmerman and Werth.
“These two games made me feel confident, made me feel happy,” Ramos said.
Cashner hit Gonzalez with a pitch as he tried to sacrifice bunt. (“Right in the ironman chest,” Gonzalez said.) Span made Cashner pay with a double to right-center field, scoring two more runs.
Desmond walked to load the bases again for Harper. He crushed a ball deep to center, missing a grand slam by a few feet. He settled for a sac fly, which settled the Nationals’ second-inning output at five.
Quentin’s homer provided a slight scare, but the Nationals, again, had put enough distance between themselves and their opponent to withstand a rally. The three-run difference also allowed Rafael Soriano a chance at his 23rd save. After three outs in three batters, Soriano ripped his uniform top out of his pants.
The Nationals are not back yet, and they have threatened to break out before only to fool anyone watching. They have another chance, which for now is all they can ask for.
“Everybody back in the lineup clicking is great,” Eckstein said. “It’s what we envisioned coming out of spring. We’ve still got our work ahead of us, but it’s a nice sight.”