By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; 10:37 PM
About an hour after Stan Kasten said he is leaving the Washington Nationals on the brink of great things, they underscored his highest hopes. With Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn sidelined by minor injuries, the team relied on the players chosen to turn losers into winners and to fill Nationals Park, the stadium Kasten helped build.
In a 7-2 victory over the Houston Astros before 14,633, the Nationals received primary contributions from pieces of their future as Dunn and Zimmerman watched. Washington blasted three home runs - two by rookies - and played perhaps its finest defensive game of the year in support of Ross Detwiler. Their third straight victory means they need to finish 5-4 to reach 70 wins, and they got it with a unique lineup.
"That's what we expect," Zimmerman said. "That's what they expect of themselves, too. This is a young team that has some very good players. Today kind of showed what kind of depth we had and what kind of team we can have moving forward."
Detwiler, the sixth pick of the 2007 draft, made his first start since early August and held the Astros to two runs over six innings. Roger Bernadina, concluding his rookie season, blasted a two-run home run in the sixth inning. Danny Espinosa, quickly establishing himself as the second baseman for next season and beyond, made a tremendous diving play and then socked a game-sealing, two-run homer in the seventh.
Michael Morse, 28, is not in the same age group as those players, but he, too, is using the end of this season to argue why he should be a part of next year's team. Morse clocked a home run and a two-run double in the sixth that gave the Nationals the lead for good. Morse has started 30 of 35 games since the Nationals lost Josh Willingham for the season, and his on-base percentage plus slugging percentage of .980 in 121 plate appearances over that span is the best on the team.
"I would love to get 500 at-bats one day, see what happens," Morse said. "I try not to think about that too much. I'll try to continue to show them I can be an everyday player."
The Nationals knew their third straight victory would not be easy. Dunn had been hit on the elbow Wednesday night. He thought he could play - "100 percent," he said - but Manager Jim Riggleman wanted to rest Dunn's elbow and aching hamstring. About an hour before the game, the Nationals announced Zimmerman had a strained rib muscle and would not play, either.
The muscle had bothered him for "a couple days," Zimmerman said, the product of wear and tear of the season. Zimmerman will not play Friday, either, Riggleman said.
On Thursday, the Nationals produced seven runs without their two best offensive players, but Detwiler ensured they wouldn't need to score much. This has been nearly a lost season for Detwiler, who because of hip surgery and ensuing complications was making only his fourth start of the year. It was also his best - he navigated six innings, despite seven hits and two walks, with no strikeouts and 74 pitches. "I know I'm not throwing as hard as I will be in the future," Detwiler said. "Moving the ball in and out was huge for me today, and really keeping them off balance."
For all the individual performances, the Nationals' undoing for much of the season may have stood out most. "The story of the game," Riggleman said, "was defense."
Without Dunn and Zimmerman, the Nationals fielded an infield of four middle infielders: Alberto Gonzalez, Ian Desmond, Espinosa and Adam Kennedy. Desmond provided the most spectacular play. In the third, with one out and a runner on first base, the Astros' Jason Bourgeois lined to the left side, a certain single. But Desmond leaped and snared the ball, his left arm fully extended. In one motion, he landed and fired a bullet across the diamond for a double play.
On Friday, the Nationals will have a chance at their first four-game streak of the season, against Tim Hudson and the Braves. They earned it without Dunn and Zimmerman, and they showed again their young players just might have the Nationals in good hands.