The Nationals know that any let up can lead to disaster. They have blown a nine-run lead this year. They have seen other leads evaporate. They are bound not to let it happen again, and they have learned their lesson. “Everyone is top-stepping it the entire time,” starter Gio Gonzalez said.
If you went to bed after the Nationals had essentially secured victory, you missed the moments that presented the Nationals’ step-on-their-throat approach. The first came in the fourth inning.
Ryan Zimmerman led off with a single. Adam LaRoche followed with a deep flyball to center field. Even with the Nationals leading by eight runs, Zimmerman tagged up at first. When Angel Pagan caught the fly, Zimmerman bolted for second. Pagan paused, not expecting Zimmerman to tag up. Zimmerman slid in safe.
“You know, let me tell you one thing,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Some people said something [about Zimmerman tagging up]. I said, ‘No, that was a great play.’ ”
A question about the play touched a nerve with Johnson. He does not believe in the etiquette of a blow out. The competition does not end and does not diminish, no matter how many runs one team leads by.
“I never want my team to ever quit competing and I don’t expect the team we’re playing to ever quit competing,” Johnson said. “Until you get to your closer with an eight-run lead and have him available, too many things can happen in this game. It’s a losing attitude when you take things for granted. We didn’t run over at home when I wanted us to run. We shut it down, and I said ‘That can’t happen.’ As it was, it turned out in that game they came back and had the winning run at the plate. So the people that dictate, ‘Well we’ll play behind in the third inning and think we’re going to quit competing,’ they’re sadly mistaken. They can come after me. But my players are going to keep competing.”
Even as the margin of victory spiraled out of control, the Nationals continued to stay heads up. Bryce Harper singled to lead off the fifth. Two batters later, the Giants put their shift on Adam LaRoche, pulling any infielder from the left side. LaRoche grounded to second, and Harper realized no one had bothered to run back and cover third. His already up 12 runs, Harper took the base. He would score a few pitches later on a passed ball.
“I’ve been down that road and clubs that are losing clubs, that’s the way they want to play,” Johnson said. “You quit trying so we can catch up. I don’t buy into it. End of story.”
Harper kept playing like every out mattered. In the seventh, Joaquin Arias crunched ball to the left-center gap. Harper cut the ball off and made a strong throw back to second base, in time to nail Arias. Never mind how foolish it was for Arias to try stretching the single. Harper kept playing hard.
“I think that’s just the way we’ve always been taught to play,” Zimmerman said. “Play the game the right way and you get rewarded for it.”
Harper and Zimmerman were not alone by any means. In the ninth inning, as the chill crept in, Danny Espinosa rolled a groundball to second base with a man on first. Espinosa hustled out of the box and sprinted through the base, beating out the throw. Espinosa had already swatted four hits, including a mammoth home run to center field. He still ran hard enough to avoid the double play.
“You have to continue because if you don’t continue to push, an eight-run ballgame doesn’t mean it’s out of reach,” Espinosa said. “You just continue to play the game the right way and, without showing the other team up, you continue to play hard and do things the right way.”
It was the kind of killer instinct Johnson wanted to see. On Aug. 3, the day Johnson was alluding to, the Nationals took a 7-1 lead after four innings in the first game of a doubleheader. The Marlins began playing behind runners at first base. The Nationals followed baseball’s standard etiquette and did not run. After the Nationals held on for a 7-4 win, Johnson was miffed.
“I was a little upset when we didn’t run,” Johnson said that day. “You don’t quit competing. You don’t let them dictate when they’re out of it, because they’re going to keep competing. I had a few discussions — ‘Why didn’t we run?’ Those are little things. But they can be big things. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. You’ve got to be at your best.”
Monday night, no matter how many runs the Nationals scored or how far ahead they pulled, the Nationals made sure they were at their best. Their manager would not stand for anything else.
FROM THE POST
The Nationals hammered the Giants, 14-2, and extended their lead in the NL East to a season-high 5 ½ games.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 6, Syracuse 4: John Lannan allowed three runs in 6 1/3 innings on three and four walks, striking out three. Sandy Leon went 2 for 4 with a home run. Brett Carroll went 2 for 3 with a double and a walk.
Harrisburg was off.
Wilmington 4, Potomac 3: Anthony Rendon went 2 for 4. Francisco Soriano went 3 for 4. Nathan Karns allowed three runs in six innings on eight hits and two walks, striking out 10.
Hagerstown 5, Hickory 1: Billy Burns went 1 for 4 with a double and a walk. Bryce Ortega went 2 for 4 with a triple. Taylor Jordan allowed no runs in five innings on two hits and two walks, striking out six.
Auburn was off.