By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009
HOUSTON, July 11 -- On very rare nights, when the sum of their parts adds up just right, the Washington Nationals play baseball at a level unbecoming of the company they keep in history. At least measured by their lineup of proven professionals, the Nationals don't belong among the superbad, hopelessly hapless outfits that preceded them. The '62 Mets batted .240 in their 120-loss season; the Nationals' lineup on Saturday included four players hitting above .300. The season leader for the 1899 Cleveland Spiders (20-134) finished with two home runs; Saturday night, Washington's lineup accounted for three homers in a span of eight pitches.
In the 86th game of their season, a 13-2 takedown of the Astros at Minute Maid Park, the Nationals flexed the exact muscle they've been talking about -- and, frankly, searching for -- all season. The Nationals did things that no team with a 26-60 record should be able to do. Sure, the baseball season is long enough that every team, no matter its record, gets a few shots to be mighty. But few teams can pull off a night when, top to bottom, they're almost perfect.
"It was just good tonight to kind of get a game where you could kind of relax," Josh Willingham said. "Once we started hitting the ball, you know, it was sort of contagious."
In some cases, the Nationals merely settled for season highs: the 13 runs, the 21 hits, the 40 total bases. In some cases, they matched Nationals (2005-09) records: their 10 extra-base hits, for instance. In other cases, they pulled off accomplishments for the first time since their relocation. When Nick Johnson, Willingham and Adam Dunn connected on back-to-back-to-back homers in the sixth, it marked the first time in Nationals history that three players went deep in consecutive plate appearances.
Every player in Washington's lineup, including starting pitcher Craig Stammen, got a hit. Six got at least two. Four -- Johnson, Willingham, Dunn and Alberto González -- had three or more. Every starter scored a run. Houston's first three pitchers each allowed at least four earned runs.
"Yeah, this is the first night we actually broke open a game and had a very fun -- I mean, that was a very fun game to be a part of," Dunn said. "We got 20-some hits and 10 extra base hits and everybody contributed."
Before 6:05 p.m. local time, this road trip had coincided with perhaps Washington's most condemning stretch of the season -- a continuum of one-run losses, a few blowouts, some dreadful errors and another one-run loss. But right away, those in attendance at Minute Maid Park got the sense that this night would be different. In the top of the first, five of Washington's first six batters laced hits, and the inning only ended when Dunn, trying to score from first on a Josh Bard double, missed second base. (So technically, the box score denoted Bard's laser to right as a fielder's choice.)
Three times through the lineup, well after starter Mike Hampton was flushed from the game, the Nationals had 22 official at bats, 12 hits, three walks, one sacrifice bunt, one sacrifice fly, and one revoked Bard double.
That's a .545 batting average.
And the Nationals hadn't even started swinging for power yet.
Willingham, Washington's hottest hitter earlier of late, retained that distinction on Saturday, even when it no longer sounded like faint praise. Willingham, lost earlier this season in a crowded outfield, needed several months to become a regular starter -- but of late he's become one of Washington's most valuable players. He clobbered two homers, his 11th and 12th of the season, collected four RBI, scored three runs, and raised his average from .295 to .303.
"Well, I don't really try to live in the past," Willingham said. "It was obviously a complete different roster when the season started. I just had to earn my keep, and once I've gotten to play I felt like I could contribute. And that's what is happening."
Though one presumed Washington's bullpen could have protected this lead, Stammen never even gave it the chance. The rookie turned his 10th major league start into his first career complete game, yielding nine hits and holding the Astros scoreless across the final six innings. He had 87 pitches after the seventh inning, but Manager Manny Acta gave him the chance to keep going. Only one Houston player reached base in the final two innings.
"The offense made it pretty easy for me to just go out there and throw strikes and get some quick outs," Stammen said. "That allowed me to go deep in the game."