By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2010; D01
The Washington Nationals, in nearly every way, have separated themselves from the maladies of last season. The surest sign came Sunday afternoon in the Nationals clubhouse, after their 3-2 victory over the Florida Marlins. One Nationals player spoke openly of contending for the playoffs, and no one laughed.
"We're fighting and trying to win the division or get a wild card," said starting pitcher Liván Hernández, who continued his remarkable season. "I know a lot of people don't talk about us. But we've got a good team. If we play the right way, we can win some games and surprise a lot of people."
If opposing teams have yet to notice, they soon will. "They've got to start taking us more serious," closer Matt Capps said. Evidence of the Nationals' transformation came tumbling out of their victory Sunday before 21,299 at Nationals Park, Josh Willingham blasted a game-winning home run in the eighth inning, lifting the Nationals to 17-14, three games above .500, their season's high-water point.
Hernández allowed one run in seven innings, and his ERA actually went up, to 1.04, second in the majors. Capps earned his league-leading 13th save. Tyler Clippard won his sixth game, moving into a tie for the league lead and becoming the seventh relief pitcher in the modern era to claim six wins in his team's first 31 games.
The Nationals had taken the series from the Marlins a team that, entering Saturday, had beaten the Nationals 29 times in their previous 39 meetings. It was another reminder of how much things have changed, another reason for the Nationals to heighten their expectations. Having won two nail-biters in a row, the Nationals are 7-3 in one-run games, those seven one-run victories tying them for the most in the majors.
"When you win a few games like that, you're able to believe you can win," Willingham said. "That's what we're doing. We believe in our pitchers. We believe in our hitters. When we're in games late, we have confidence we're going to win them this year."
On Sunday, the Nationals won it in the eighth, right after they almost lost it. Untouchable for most of this season, Clippard occupied the mound for a crucial run for the second straight day. After Sean Burnett gave up a leadoff single to lead off the eighth, Clippard entered and allowed a single and a walk to load the bases with no outs before surrendering a sacrifice fly to Jorge Cantú.
Clippard minimized the damage with a strikeout and a groundout, keeping the score tied when Willingham came up with one out in the bottom half of the inning. Earlier in the day, Denise Willingham had called her son and asked, "Are you going to hit me another home run today?" Josh Willingham had hit two home runs on Mother's Day last year. He replied, "I can't promise you anything."
Willingham stepped into the box and stared out at Clay Hensley, the Marlins reliever who had struck out 10 of the 16 Nationals batters he'd faced this season. Most of them, Willingham knew, had flailed at curveballs or change-ups. With the count 1-1, Willingham looked for one of those offspeed pitches.
Hensley left an 83-mph change-up high and over the plate, and Willingham crushed it. The ball landed in the Marlins bullpen in left field, giving the Nationals the lead and Denise Willingham another present.
Out in the bullpen, Capps started warming up. Capps keeps in his locker a quotation by Joe Namath, printed on paper and hanging by Scotch tape. "If you aren't going all the way," it reads, "why go at all?"
Warming up, Capps felt erratic. He was about to pitch for the fifth time in eight days. Against leadoff hitter Cody Ross, Capps threw his first three pitches "all over the place." He was exercising caution, which is not his style. "Let's go after him," Capps told himself. "Let's see what happens."
Six pitches later, Capps had finished off the Marlins and the Nationals had won their sixth series against three losses. In separating themselves from the maladies of last season, the Nationals also have altered their image in opposing clubhouses.
"Last year, teams just came in and thought it would be an easy series win," Willingham said. "That's not the case this year. You play better baseball, you get respect from people."
The Nationals left for their nine-day trip, their first stop in New York, where they'll break their second-place tie with the Mets. They finish with the Colorado Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals, a pair of 2009 playoff teams. The Nationals don't expect it to be easy, but they don't expect to make it easy for their opponents, either.
"It's going to be a challenge," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "But we feel like more and more, other clubs are going to be looking at us like, 'Hey, it's going to be a challenge to play those guys.' "