The first week of the Washington Nationals season has been an exercise in sputtering starts and stops. The Nationals have played seven games in nine days, and the two off days may have provided some extra rest, but also seemed to prevent the team’s revamped lineup from establishing a rhythm.
The offense, expected to be a strength of a team many view as World Series contenders, had yet to show its full capabilities.
That changed Tuesday as the Nationals’ bats broke out in an 8-7 win over the Chicago White Sox in an early interleague matchup, the first of a stretch of 25 games in 26 days.
“There’s not really any easy spot in the lineup,” Jayson Werth said.
Werth’s third home run broke a sixth-inning tie, showing that his surgically repaired left wrist is perfectly fine after his power numbers ebbed last season. He added an important insurance run with an RBI single in the seventh. LaRoche awoke from a 0-for-15 start to his season in rousing fashion with two shots over the fence. The offensive explosion was just enough to withstand the runs surrendered by Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano.
With the score knotted at 2-2 in the sixth inning, Werth strode to the plate against White Sox starter Jake Peavy, who baffled the Nationals for much of the first five innings In the fourth inning, Werth hit a ball off Peavy the furthest possible without leaving the stadium, 400 feet to dead center, for an out. Peavy fielded a coaching visit to the mound before facing Werth again.
It did no good. Werth hammered the first pitch Peavy threw him — a low, 90-mph fastball — into the left field seats for a two-run home run. An inning later, leading by only a run and with pinch hitter Steve Lombardozzi and Span on base because of walks, Werth stroked a single through the left side of the infield to give the Nats a 7-5 lead. Through seven games hitting second in the lineup, Werth has drawn no walks.
“His wrist is feeling good and he’s being more aggressive,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “I like that. He’ll get his walks, I’m not worried about that.”
Following the game, Werth said he wouldn’t field any questions about his left wrist, which he broke in May and missed three months of the season, yet another sign he is confident in it. When he returned last August, he became the everyday leadoff hitter and his power appeared sapped.
“I saw it in spring training,” Ian Desmond said of Werth’s returning power. “He wasn’t hitting a lot of balls out of the ballpark in spring training. But the contact, the noise it’s making off the barrel is like I remember playing against.”
The night also brought a welcome return to form from LaRoche, who struck out in his first two at-bats. On his third trip, with Ryan Zimmerman on base, he squared up on a Peavy curveball, taking it to straightaway center for a two-run shot. Two innings later in the eighth, LaRoche went deep again off left-handed reliever Matt Thornton, brought in for the sole purpose of facing him.
“I wasn’t worried at all,” LaRoche said. “I would come in and work on it if I knew my timing was off and I was putting up bad at-bats and chasing pitching and not putting quality at-bats up. I felt as good as I could feel that first series. In Cincy, I had some back stuff going on and it was kinda in the back of my mind when I was hitting. Where I was that first series is where I want to be all year.”
Behind two important bats in the lineup, and a solo home run from Desmond, the Nationals produced enough offense to withstand some shaky work on the mound. Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez labored in his second start at home. His struggles with the strike zone began in the first inning, a 33-pitch marathon.
Gonzalez didn’t throw enough strikes. He faced six batters. He allowed back-to-back one-out singles and then walked Paul Konerko on six pitches to load the bases. And just when it appeared he could exit the inning unscathed after striking out Dayan Viciedo, Gonzalez stepped off the pitcher’s mound with the wrong foot. He was called for a balk and allowed the game’s first run.
But Gonzalez somehow managed to last through five innings, inducing groundouts and sharpening his pitches. He walked only two over the five innings and struck out seven, handing the ball over to Craig Stammen for the sixth inning. Stammen allowed one run and then Clippard, pitching in the seventh, allowed a three-run home run to Konerko that trimmed the Nationals’ lead to 6-5.
Werth pushed the lead back to two, but Soriano injected more drama in the ninth. Against the Cincinnati Reds over the weekend, he blew his first save. Facing the White Sox, he notched two quick outs but then allowed a home run to Alex Rios. Soriano managed a flyout from Konerko to end the game and secure his third save. The offense’s effort would stand.
Following the game, LaRoche’s 11-year-old son Drake found his father in the clubhouse, tapped him on the shoulder, uttered “It’s about time” and then walked away.
“Now it’s just about cleaning it up a little more and getting to the level we want to be at,” Desmond.