Gio Gonzalez spent Saturday afternoon in sweaty exhilaration, ignoring the 91-degree weather and reveling in the chocolate-coated celebration of Max Scherzer’s no-hitter. Then he realized something daunting.
You’re next, buddy.
Good luck following that.
“It’s tough to match,” Gonzalez said Sunday, smiling at his understatement. “But it’s something that helped.”
He didn’t use the dreaded word “momentum” because it’s best for baseball players to view a 162-game season as narrowly as possible. Still, Gonzalez and the Washington Nationals can admit to feeding off the positive vibe of their season’s best highlight to date. It was the most dramatic moment in their best series this season— a three-game sweep of a Pittsburgh team that came to Nationals Park having won eight straight games.
These were wins with a capital curly “W.” Playing a series against a 2014 playoff team for only the second time this season, the Nationals flashed the traits of a quality ballclub. They let their pitching carry them and supported it with great defense. They showed multiple dimensions on offense, from solid base running to moving runners with worthwhile at-bats to enjoying the boom that Bryce Harper provides. It all added up to a dominant result: a 19-3 running score over three games against the previously sizzling Pirates.
It would have been 19-1 if Corey Hart hadn’t homered off Nationals reliever Felipe Rivero with two outs in the ninth inning of Sunday’s 9-2 triumph. But Washington had made its statement long before that, scoring all nine of its runs in the first inning, a team record.
You know a series was special when a nine-run inning wasn’t even the most important thing that happened. The record book kept taking bows the entire weekend. Beyond Scherzer throwing the second no-no in franchise history and Sunday’s offensive onslaught, the pitchers threw 24 consecutive scoreless innings, another club record. Joe Ross put the handcuffs on the Pirates on Friday night, Scherzer tightened them and Gonzalez finished the incredible pitching display with seven scoreless innings in the finale.
Gonzalez, who has had his struggles this season, didn’t match Scherzer. But he did something just as valuable. He built upon the success of Scherzer and Ross. He kept the bridge to sustained success under construction.
Now the Nationals are back in first place in the National League East . The concern of Thursday night, when Harper fell awkwardly and strained his hamstring, seems like two weeks ago. A team that Manager Matt Williams challenged to “step up” after Harper’s injury has done just that.
Of course, this being baseball, you need to see at least a 10-game sample to determine whether the Nationals are amid a surge. However, with their star-studded starting rotation almost back to full strength, they have an opportunity to play much better than the .529 winning percentage you have seen through 70 games.
A year ago, when the Nationals finished 96-66, they had the same record (37-33) at this point. When healthy, this should be an improved ballclub. Even in their current state, with Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman still on the mend, with Anthony Rendon still getting in a rhythm and with Ian Desmond still searching for his old form, the Nationals are capable of making the season manageable.
Good pitching simplifies the game. If they can support it with solid defense and grind out four runs on most nights, they won’t be shuffling in the NL East’s mediocrity much longer. If they can find their game in this incomplete state, they will be better for it when they finally get healthy.
“Everybody says we’re struggling, but I don’t think as a team that we’re struggling,” said Harper, who hit his 24th home run in the first inning Sunday. “We’re doing pretty dang good. We just played great ball and had some great pitching this weekend. If we can do that, we’d win 162 games. We’ll go through times where we’ve had ups and downs in this game, where the ball just didn’t fall our way. But we had a great weekend. Hopefully, we can take this into next week and stay in first place.”
There were no statements, no grand declarations of a turnaround, no promises. Instead, the Nationals will take this feel-good series, relax during a day off Monday and try to make a routine of playing good, fundamental baseball. For all the pressure of expectations and early-season concern, that’s all the Nationals must do if their pitching is intact. Once Stephen Strasburg, who could return Tuesday, is healthy and makes the starting rotation whole, you should see more consistency.
Ask Williams for perspective on the resounding sweep, and he keeps it simple.
“I just think the last three guys have pitched really well,” he said. “That sets our tone, certainly.”
What’s it like to play defense during a 24-inning scoreless streak? “It’s not hard,” first baseman Clint Robinson joked. “They’re striking out a lot of guys and not a lot of hard contact.”
The Nationals don’t have momentum. They have put together three great starts and added solid all-around baseball to go with them. It’s a simple formula. And it’s easier to reproduce than some mystical force thrusting them forward.
More on the Nationals
Box score: Nationals 9, Pirates 2
Nats Journal: Strasburg may start Tuesday