DENVER — Temperatures were in the 40s and Gio Gonzalez’s pitch count was in the 90s as he waited out the most prolific offensive inning in Washington Nationals history, standing near a heater in the dugout, trying to stay warm until his teammates relented.
But these days, waiting for the Nationals’ offense to relent is like waiting for a Colorado winter to end. Just when the cold ebbs and the sun thaws, the chill returns, unwilling to give way. The Nationals beat the Rockies on Thursday afternoon, 16-5, a fitting end to a series in which they scored 46 runs in four games and batted .346.
The Nationals (16-6) are tied for the best start in franchise history with the 1979 Montreal Expos. They own the best record in baseball. Their opponents spent much of April waiting for the Nationals’ offense to quit, but they waited in vain. That seventh inning, in which they scored more runs in an inning than any Expos/Nationals team has in 20 years, is a fitting microcosm of their season.
“At any point in that inning, somebody could have shut it down,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “Nobody wanted to make that last out. Nobody wants to give an at-bat away.”
Fifteen batters stepped to the plate. Eight got hits. Three walked. Eleven scored. Adam Lind got two hits in that inning alone — as many as he had in his past eight games. Daniel Murphy doubled and singled. Bryce Harper, who had been the only Nationals starter without a hit by then, hit his eighth home run.
Gonzalez had to abandon his post by the heater to take a bases-loaded at-bat in that inning. He walked, eventually rounded the bases and went back to his post. At first, Manager Dusty Baker urged him to sit down, to preserve some energy for the bottom of the seventh. A few hits later, Gonzalez said, Baker told him to stay right where he was.
“You know you’re going to score a lot of runs here,” Baker said, “but I didn’t have any idea we’re going to score that many runs.”
Baker and his Nationals began the trip hoping not to leave their momentum somewhere along the way. After Thursday’s win, they would leave Colorado with that momentum packed safely in their suitcases for the long flight home.
They finished this trip 9-1, a winning percentage that is the best a Nationals team has ever compiled on a trip this long. They own a four-game lead in the National League East.
“They say if you are .500 or better you’re playing pretty good on the road.” Baker said. “But if we’d won every series, we’d be playing .600 ball.”
As it happens, the Nationals are now playing .727 ball and are well ahead of Baker’s 15-wins-per-month schedule — one the Nationals stuck to as they won 95 games and a division title last season.
As always, April reactions must be tempered. One good April road trip does not guarantee a trip to October, or even a good May. Until the Nationals arrived in Denver, their opponents were not elite. The Atlanta Braves are rebuilding. The New York Mets are beaten and bruised, a shadow of the team they are intended to be. The Rockies entered this series in first place, leading the NL West — though their starting rotation was inexperienced, and Coors Field can make even mediocre offenses look potent. Coors Field made the Nationals look legendary.
“Coors Field is a great place to hit. It’s got big gaps, they play you deep so you’ve got the hits in front of them — and the long ball of course,” Harper said. “But you’ve still got to hit the baseball.”
Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon were not even in the lineup Thursday, and the Nationals still scored 16. They finished the series 55 for 159 with 12 doubles, three triples and eight home runs.
Before that monstrous inning, Gonzalez was doing his part to keep the Nationals in what was once a close game. He induced two double plays in the first four innings to escape jams. He worked into the seventh and allowed just two runs. He is 3-0 with a 1.62 ERA, which is in keeping with the way Nationals starters pitched throughout their cross-country swing. In 10 starts, Gonzalez and his comrades pitched to a 3.36 ERA and averaged more than six innings per start.
After the Nationals provided ample insurance in that seventh, the bullpen took over. Matt Albers, who has been the steadiest of an unsteady bunch, threw 1⅓ scoreless innings. Joe Blanton’s struggles continued in the ninth, when he allowed three runs.
But the offense has afforded Baker and his staff time to resolve the troubles of a bullpen in flux, which remains the biggest threat to their division supremacy as they fly home to play the Mets this weekend.
Thursday, like so many other times on this trip, the offense pushed problems out of sight and momentarily out of mind. Through April 27, the slugging Nationals’ record says they are the best team in baseball, their offense so deep and dogged that even at the end of a 10-game, three-city, two-time-zone road trip, it would not give in.