NEW YORK — The Washington Nationals have toggled between different methods of victory all season, and lately they have settled on brute force. They pulverized the New York Mets on Monday night with their new weapon of choice. Rather than lean on the best pitching staff in baseball, the Nationals win by banging the ball over the fence. They have traded scalpel for cleaver.
The Nationals clobbered three more home runs Monday night in their 5-1 victory over the Mets at Citi Field, their 10th win in 13 games. In his first start since Stephen Strasburg’s shutdown made him the Nationals’ unofficial ace, Gio Gonzalez bolstered his Cy Young candidacy by becoming the first major leaguer starter to reach 19 wins. He allowed one run in six innings, which gave the Nationals’ offense ample room to flex.
The Nationals did not record a hit once Mets starter Collin McHugh left after four innings, but they still notched their 87th victory, more than any Washington team since the summer World War II ended. After the Atlanta Braves lost in Milwaukee, the Nationals’ magic number to clinch the National League East dropped to 15 and their lead nudged back to 61 / 2 games.
Kurt Suzuki, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond each blasted a home run. The trio continued an overwhelming trend. In their past seven games, the Nationals have ripped 23 home runs. Suddenly, since the all-star break, the Nationals have smashed 78 homers, more than any team in the NL. They also lead the league in runs scored since the break.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that are very strong,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “They’re growing up to be good hitters. Zim’s already a great hitter. I think he’s fully over that shoulder injury. That ball tonight was crushed, one of the hardest hit balls I’ve seen. Look up and down our lineup, there’s a lot of guys that have a bunch of homers.”
Despite five walks in six innings, Gonzalez still stifled the Mets. He allowed just three hits and lowered his ERA to 2.93, fifth in the NL. He extended his scoreless innings streak to 19 before Scott Hairston led off the fourth with the Mets’ first hit, a homer to left field. Even with the early control problems, Gonzalez struck out six, one per inning.
“I wouldn’t want to face him, by any means,” Desmond said. “I’d give him a Cy Young right now.”
Gonzalez walked two batters in the first inning and two more in the third. “I may have had a little too much coffee,” Gonzalez said. But he still held the Mets scoreless. His biggest moment came in the third. Consecutive two-out walks brought to the plate David Wright, the Mets’ lone significant threat. Gonzalez and Wright battled to a 3-2 count, and then Gonzalez froze him with a bold, 3-2 curveball.
“Command might not have been the best he’s ever had, but he pitched through it,” Suzuki said. “The thing I’m talking about with Gio is, learning how to pitch, especially when you don’t have your best command, your best stuff out there, and still getting the job done. That’s the sign of a good pitcher.”
The Nationals officially, mercifully eliminated the Mets from contention in the East. “That made me a little happy,” said Johnson, the former Mets manager. One play demonstrated how the Mets have fallen by the wayside with three weeks left.
Suzuki led off the third inning and popped up McHugh’s 0-1 slider behind home plate. He took a few steps toward the Nationals’ dugout before he peeked over his shoulder, just in time to see the ball plop out of catcher Kelly Shoppach’s mitt and fall to the turf.
“Those situations, you try to make them pay for it,” Suzuki said.
Two pitches later, Suzuki crushed another slider over the left field fence, which gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead. The Nationals acquired Suzuki for his defense, but in his last 11 games, Suzuki, the Nationals’ No. 8 hitter, is batting .314 with four homers.
In the fourth inning, Michael Morse led off with an infield single, which brought Desmond to the plate. Desmond smashed a 3-2 fastball to right field. They have moved in the fences at Citi Field this year, but it would not have mattered where or when Desmond drilled the ball. It was a no-doubt, opposite-field home run. The Nationals led, 5-0. Desmond’s 22nd homer gave him more than any Washington middle infielder in the 79 years since 1900 the city has had a team.
This year, Desmond has hit more homers, 22, than any other major league shortstop. Even though he missed nearly a month on the disabled list, Desmond also leads with 4.5 wins above replacement, the metric used by FanGraphs.com to ascertain a player’s overall value.
When Desmond arrived at spring training, there remained some question if he could seize the position in the long term. With less than a month left in the season, he could win a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger or both.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best shortstop in the National League,” Johnson said before the game. “Not only defensively, but offensively. He’s fun to watch, and he’s only going to get better.”
Desmond’s latest homer revealed yet another way in which he has expanded his talents this season. Before June 28, Desmond had only hit one homer to the right of center field, back in 2010, his rookie season. Since that day, Desmond has blasted five home runs to the opposite field.
“I mean, I’m a better hitter, period, this year than I have been in the past,” Desmond said. “I think I figured some things out with the help of Davey and just kind of trying to move forward, take steps in the right direction and become the player I think I can be.
“I work hard in the offseason. I put a lot of time in and I don’t think there’s a cap on my ability and my heart. I think God’s blessed me with some pretty good tools, and I just try to go out there and play the game as hard as I can to help the team win. Whatever happens as far as individual stats is pretty irrelevant.”