The Washington Nationals strayed far from routine Saturday afternoon, a necessity mandated from places above Manager Matt Williams’s office. At the typically appointed time for shagging flies and honing swings, fans ringed the Nationals Park warning track. Players dressed in full, white uniforms and ambled for a full lap, shaking hands and signing autographs, their obligation on season-ticket holder appreciation day. On the field, at least, not one player swung a bat.
The Nationals, it turned out, didn’t cancel batting practice. They just pushed it back a few hours. The Nationals’ scuffling offense erupted in an 11-0 thumping of the Philadelphia Phillies, mashing 14 hits, drawing four walks and notching their highest run total since July 5. After, the Nationals celebrated in their clubhouse — complete with laser-light show, thumping music and a smoke machine.
“It’s a lot of fun just scoring runs,” center fielder Denard Span said. “Because we hadn’t scored [many] runs the previous two games. Just keep the line moving.”
Really, the outcome would have been the same if the Nationals had scored a single run. Jordan Zimmermann fired seven scoreless innings, allowing five hits and no walks with eight strikeouts. He lowered his ERA to 3.00 and upped his strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio to 8.25, which would be the best of his career for a full season. Zimmermann has made three starts since he strained his right biceps July 11 in Philadelphia. In the past two, he’s allowed two runs in 14 innings with 14 strikeouts and one walk.
“You’re never really sure what it’s going to feel like when you get back on the mound, be able to go 100 pitches,” Zimmermann said. “I have a couple starts under my belt now, and everything feels great. It’s a thing of the past.”
Anthony Rendon led the Nationals’ onslaught. He went 3 for 5 with a three-run home run, a blast that snapped the Nationals’ nine-game homerless streak (a team record) and precipitated Phillies starter A.J. Burnett’s ejection in the second inning. Rendon also singled and doubled in his first three at-bats, leaving him one leg shy of the cycle.
“I heard people in the stands, ‘Get the triple! Get the triple!’” Rendon said. “I didn’t want to, because I got to run more. I’ll stay at second base.”
Before his home run, before all drama had been sucked from the game, Rendon’s skill as a hitter set the tone. He walked to the plate in the first inning with Span on first after a single up the middle, which extended his on-base streak to 28 games. Span promptly stole second off Burnett, whom the Nationals targeted — he had allowed 20 steals this season. Rendon worked the count to 3-1, but he never veered from his objective: hit a groundball to the opposite field.
“If it goes to the right side, I get him over,” Rendon said. “If it gets through, I get a little bit more.”
Burnett fired a sinker on the outside corner, and Rendon shot it the other way. The ball scooted into right field. Span darted home with the game’s first run.
“I think it set the tone,” Williams said. “He’s got a 3-1 pitch and he doesn’t get too big. He simply stayed with the approach of what we needed to have happen there. It ended up getting a base hit, but it was done the right way.”
Rendon was hardly alone. Every Nationals starter chipped in at least one hit — even Zimmermann singled and walked twice. Before the fourth inning ended, every Nationals starter had reached base and all eight position players had driven in at least one run. Newly acquired second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera smacked his first hit as a National, a single down the right field line, and then added an RBI triple. The Nationals scored all 11 runs in the first four innings; Williams started pulling regulars in the sixth inning, giving rest to Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond.
The outburst broke the Nationals’ recent malaise. Since Ryan Zimmerman tore his hamstring, they had gone 3-6, scored three runs per game and failed to hit even one homer. They had suffered two straight losses to the floundering Phillies, a listless clunker Thursday and a nail-biter in which they managed one run Friday.
Saturday night, they asserted themselves from the start and ripped the game apart in the second. Burnett opened the frame by walking Bryce Harper on four pitches and then loaded the bases with a walk to Zimmermann.
After Span’s sacrifice fly with one out in the second, Rendon walked to the plate with two outs and a chance to turn the rally into a big inning. Burnett threw him a 1-0 sinker over the outside corner, a coin-flip call. Burnett steamed when home plate umpire Chris Guccione called it a ball, putting him down 2-0 in the count.
Burnett remained behind in the count when he fired a 3-1 fastball. Rendon obliterated it. The ball soared into the first row of red seats in left-center field. The crowd erupted, the Nationals seized a 5-0 lead and Burnett fumed over the 1-0 fastball.
Once the din quieted, Burnett threw a first-pitch ball outside to Jayson Werth — on purpose. He then waved his glove at Guccione and yelled, “That’s out.”
Guccione ripped off his mask, stomped to the front of the plate and heaved Burnett. Phillies Manager Ryne Sandberg raced from the dugout, and as Burnett screamed and pointed at Guccione, the umpire ejected Sandberg, too.
“Pretty quick trigger,” Burnett said. “It’s just one of those things where he felt like I showed him up in front of 40,000 people.”
The Nationals added a run in the third and exploded again in the fourth off right-handed reliever Phillippe Aumont. The first four batters Aumont faced in the inning stung hits off him. With a thin bullpen, the Phillies had little choice but to let Aumont stay on the mound and absorb a beating. The Nationals sent 10 hitters to the plate and added another five runs.
They cruised through the rest of the night, a welcome respite for a manager who had not won by more than three runs since July 21. Williams felt sick prior to the game, ailing so much he was late to post the lineup card. He felt fine by the end of the night.
The Nationals will arrive Sunday morning with a chance to split the series with Stephen Strasburg facing Cole Hamels. Chances are, they will skip batting practice.
“It’s optional tomorrow,” Williams said, smiling.