Davey Johnson does not speak with his players all that often, but he makes certain to tell them every now and again never to take anything for granted. A shortstop may boot that groundball. A season left for dead, bogged down in expectations, may be revived. Baseball is too strange and the season too long to count on anything. “I’ve never sensed that attitude here,” Johnson said.
The Washington Nationals went to bed Aug. 7 with a 54-60 record. They will wake up Friday morning, after their 9-0 thrashing of the hapless Miami Marlins, as a team that cannot be ignored in the National League playoff picture. The team’s summer forecast is finally becoming realized — a surplus of runs, dominating starting pitching and an overmatched opponent made to look like props.
Their sweep may have come against a last-place team with an anonymous roster, but it gave the Nationals eight wins in nine games. After Gio Gonzalez’s seven scoreless innings and an onslaught spearheaded by Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond, the Nationals sit 61 / 2 games behind the idle Cincinnati Reds for the second wild-card spot. The fans at Nationals Park could feel regret it took so long, or they could cross their fingers and see what happens for one more month.
“The season of expectations and kind of the hangover from last year and all that, really now we’re just shaking it off and playing good baseball,” Werth said. “That’s really all it comes down to. We haven’t played good baseball all year until recently. We need to keep it going. There’s plenty of time. There’s plenty of time to do a crazy thing.”
Johnson could not identify why, exactly, the Nationals have won 14 of 19. “If I knew the magic formula, I could really make some money,” Johnson said. The manager believes the Nationals have played more relaxed, which may be a symptom of winning, not a cause for it. “What comes first?” Werth said. No matter the reason, the Nationals — albeit against a weak recent schedule — have reminded themselves why those expectations arose in the first place.
“This is the Nats that I remember,” Gonzalez said. “We’re getting our groove back. The chemistry and the vibe in here, it’s just getting better and better.”
The meek Nationals lineup from the first four months of the season has grown fearsome. Once fighting slumps, Denard Span and Harper are now riding 12- and 11-game hitting streaks. Werth, even if he missed May, has slugged his way to the periphery of the most valuable player race. Over their past 19 games, the Nationals lead the National League in runs per game, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
“We’re a scary team when we’re going good,” Harper said. “I think everybody knows that.”
After the first two innings Thursday, Gonzalez had walked three Marlins and allowed two hits. “If you had told me I was going to go seven innings, I would have laughed in your face,” Gonzalez said later. Gonzalez marched back to the clubhouse to change his jersey, soaked with sweat on a muggy night. Two lockers down, closer Rafael Soriano told him, “Stay back. Your arm is dropping way too low. You’re trying to rush.”
Gonzalez made the adjustment, then allowed one more hit and struck out seven in his final five innings. As he mowed down the Marlins, the Nationals’ lineup erupted. Ryan Zimmerman, Harper and Werth alone went 8 for 10 with two walks and two home runs.
In the middle of August, Harper’s on-base percentage fell to .357 — unheard of for most 20-year-olds but a season low for him. Harper made three changes. He stood more upright at the plate, grew more selective and removed some of the violence from his stroke. He still swings hard — the next time Harper gets cheated at the plate will be his first. But he also swings more under control, and pitchers have been forced to throw him more strikes. To release tension, he lays the bat on his shoulder in his stance.
“He looks more relaxed,” Johnson said. “He’s another one that thinks he has to do more when things aren’t going good. He thinks he has to expand the zone, swing harder, make something happen. So everything’s good.”
In the fourth, Miami rookie starter Tom Koehler tried to sneak a first-pitch change-up past Harper. Harper stayed back and launched the pitch to left field. It landed in the flower beds above the fence.
“I’m just trying to make things as simple as I can,” Harper said.
The attitude may stretch to off-the-field pursuits, too.
“Bryce is a good player,” Werth said. “Everybody knows that. He’s young. He’s learning. There’s a lot of pressure on him from all directions, really. I’d like to him settle in and just play baseball the last month here. Sometimes you get caught up in who’s saying what and all that — not that he’s doing that — but that can happen, especially when you’re young. I’d like to see him focus in for a month and see what he can do.”
In his next at-bat, Harper followed Zimmerman’s single with an eight-pitch walk, which he finished by fouling off a curve and spitting on a slider. During his 11-game hitting streak, Harper has walked seven times. In his previous 22 games, Harper had drawn six free passes.
Koehler, a right-hander, found himself in one of the most unwelcoming situations a National League pitcher can face at the moment: With two runners on base, Werth walked to the plate. Werth won the National League’s player of the month award in July, and he has made a strong case for August, during which he had hit .395 with a 1.124 OPS before last night. Since the all-star break, Werth has the best OPS in baseball, non-Miguel Cabrera division.
“Since he came off the DL,” Zimmerman said, “he’s been the best player in baseball.”
Werth crushed a 2-1, hanging breaking ball. He smashed the pitch about 20 rows deep to left field, giving the Nationals a 5-0 lead. Desmond crushed a moon-scraping homer two innings later, which put the Nationals ahead 9-0.
The Nationals know their place in the playoff hunt is not guaranteed, that the work remaining will be harder than what they’ve done to even give themselves a chance. But, to be sure, they at least have a chance.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun this last month,” Harper said.
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