If the Washington Nationals did not slow down Friday, it seems hard to believe they will at all. Their flame-throwing ace felt irritation in his right forearm, and the Nationals replaced him with a journeyman who employs a windup out of the 1950s. And then their scalding lineup bashed two homers, Ross Ohlendorf survived five innings and the Nationals left the Philadelphia Phillies in their wake. A crater appeared before their car and they cruised through it. Just drove over a pothole, you said? No, didn’t notice.
After the Nationals scratched Stephen Strasburg, Ohlendorf allowed one run in five innings and three Nationals relievers finished off a 6-1 victory at Nationals Park. Wilson Ramos and Ryan Zimmerman both continued power surges with solo homers — the Nationals played baseball, and therefore Zimmerman hit a home run. Ian Desmond knocked in two runs with two infield singles. Two more runs scored on a slapstick single that bounced 20 feet in the air off reliever Luis Garcia’s left heel and landed next to the mound.
“When you’re winning games in a row, the whole team is doing things that are helping you win,” Zimmerman said. “It’s kind of contagious and kind of rubs off on whoever is out there. Ross has been great for us all year. He’s done everything we asked of him and more.”
As if the Nationals needed more good fortune, when they returned to their clubhouse they watched on televisions as the Cincinnati Reds lost to the Milwaukee Brewers. “Oh, yeah!” one player screamed amidst clapping as a two-run single fell in front of Reds center fielder Shin-Soo Choo. Having won 24 of 33 games and a season-high seven straight, the Nationals saw their deficit for the second wild card drop to 41 / 2 games — the closest they have been to a postseason spot since July 11.
“We just gotta win,” said Bryce Harper, who threw out two runners at second base from deep left field. “We gotta play our game, and if we don’t win, it doesn’t matter.”
The Nationals charged ahead despite a scare. Thursday morning, Strasburg felt irritation as he toyed with a new grip on one of his pitches during a bullpen session at Citi Field. He could not get loose, and the Nationals did not want to push him. Ohlendorf watched Thursday’s win from the dugout with the knowledge he may start Friday night. At the end of the game, as his teammates packed for home, Ohlendorf played catch to prepare for a spot start.
“It was fine,” Ohlendorf said. “I’ve had to be flexible all season.”
The Nationals, who believe Strasburg will recover in time to start next Thursday, remained quiet about Strasburg’s condition. Some players figured out what had happened. Others did not. Zimmerman said he did not know Ohlendorf would start in Strasburg’s place until a reporter told him at about 4 p.m. The difference in star power notwithstanding, the Nationals expected little drop-off with Ohlendorf on the mound.
“He’s really done an unbelievable job,” Desmond said. “He’s been a horse out of the bullpen. He’s done some things that not many other guys would do. He’s good at what he does, and we respect that. So it’s not a surprise to any of us in here.”
One out allowed Ohlendorf to leave with a 3-1 lead more than any other. Freddy Galvis led off the fifth with a liner into the left field corner. Harper corralled the ball and sent a laser back to second base. Galvis slid in ahead of the throw. But he also slid past the base and ended up with only his fingertips touching the bag.
“I kept my glove there in case,” second baseman Steve Lombardozzi said.
When Galvis’s momentum carried him off the base for a split-second, the second base umpire pointed and called Galvis out. Out in left field, Harper pumped his fist.
“I get fired up,” said Harper, who is tied for fourth in the majors with 12 outfield assists. “It doesn’t happen very often. I get a little adrenaline rush when I throw guys out.”
The Nationals had taken their lead in familiar fashion, with brute force. To lead off the second, Phillies starter Kyle Kendrick hung a 1-0 change-up over the inside half of the plate. Ramos belted it off the back wall of the visitors’ bullpen. He has hit a home run once every 17.1 at-bats this year, which would rank 12th in the majors if he had enough at-bats to qualify.
Zimmerman led off the third and fell behind, 0-2. At the moment, the count does not matter for Zimmerman. Kendrick threw him an 88-mph sinker, low and inside. Zimmerman muscled it into the visitors’ bullpen in left field.
“I just started laughing when he hit that one tonight,” Harper said.
After hitting 15 home runs in his first 118 games this year, Zimmerman has crushed nine in his past 11. Two weeks ago, people asked why his power had disappeared. Now he has the same home run total — 24 — as Prince Fielder.
“He’s been hitting low line drives and hard groundballs that if you’re one grain [of wood on the bat] up turn into home runs,” Desmond said. “And now it’s happening. This game, you are what you are. And by the end of the day, we might look up and Zim might have 30 and 100. That is who he is.”
After Ohlendorf exited, their offense poured on more runs. Harper singled to load the bases with one out in the fifth. Desmond drilled a ball directly off the plate, and by the time it landed in third baseman Cody Asche’s glove there was nothing he could do with it.
After Adam LaRoche struck out, Ramos smoked a 3-2 fastball up the middle. Garcia stuck out his heel, and the ball shot into the air. Garcia looked up, left and right but never located the ball until it plopped behind him. He scampered to pick it up but tripped over second baseman Chase Utley. As the circus unfolded, Harper raced home from second base and gave the Nationals a five-run lead.
“We’re getting a few breaks now,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “And Bryce was running hard. That was great.”
One question remained, and Denard Span answered it in the sixth. He flared a single to left field, which extended his hitting streak to 24 games. Strasburg may have been watching, but everything was still going right for the hottest team in the majors.