The first five months of their season reduced the Washington Nationals’ September to a mixture of auditions, experiments and, in the form of Stephen Strasburg, reintroductions. Winning has turned from a sole focus to a potentially pleasant byproduct. The clubhouse would like to rearrange that notion.
“We always say, ‘Next year,’ ” Nationals closer Drew Storen said. “But I think we can do a lot here in the last month to show ‘Hey, we’re for real. Next year is going to be a lot different.’ That’s our biggest thing right now. End this season on a positive and worry about next year, next year.”
Monday afternoon, the Nationals provided an emphatic reversal of their late-season struggle with a 7-2 pounding of the Los Angeles Dodgers before 25,518 at Nationals Park. Michael Morse hit two of the Nationals’ four home runs, three of which came in the first inning. John Lannan allowed one run in 51 / 3 innings before four relievers combined on 32 / 3 one-run innings.
The Nationals won for the second time in three games, perhaps putting behind them a bad stretch in which they went 2-10. Morse and shortstop Ian Desmond served as the catalysts, going a combined 4 for 9 with three homers; Jayson Werth added the fourth home run. Morse added further legitimacy to his breakout season. Desmond continued to turn his around.
Desmond hammered a leadoff home run for the second time in three games, launching a hanging 1-2 slider from Hiroki Kuroda “nine miles,” Manager Davey Johnson said. It actually landed over the visitors’ bullpen in left field.
“All I know is I hit the farthest home run out of all of them,” Desmond said.
If Desmond sounds confident, he has reason. Before the all-star break, he hit three home runs in 85 games and hit .223/.264/.308 (average/on-base/slugging). Desmond was statistically one of the least productive hitters in baseball.
“When I got here, he was kind of trying to serve the ball to right field, let the ball get deep and kind of flare these little hits into right,” Johnson said. “I remember him [before this season] hitting the ball where it’s pitched — if the ball is inside, hit it out front. If the ball is away, hit it the other way. He’s been doing that more.”
Since the all-star break, Desmond has been a different hitter, hitting .282/.337/.431 over 47 games. There is danger in trusting such a small sample, but he has swung with more authority and consistently made harder contact. His success, he believes, sprung from how he reacted to his rocky start.
“I think I’m proud about how I acted the first half,” Desmond said. “It was hard, but it never really beat me down. I’m proud of that. The season isn’t over yet. I’ve still a got a lot of work to do.”
Desmond’s surge has coinciding roughly with his ascension to the leadoff spot, and “I think everybody’s been feeding off of that,” Lannan said. On Monday, Rick Ankiel followed Desmond with a single, and Morse and Werth hit back-to-back homers to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead in the first.
“Those guys put on a show today,” Lannan said. “It’s something that has been lacking, but when this kind of game shows up, it proves that we can hit.”
Oddities came tumbling out of the inning. Kuroda had never given up three home runs in an entire game, let alone an inning, over 109 career starts. In the previous four starts Lannan made, the Nationals had scored three runs total while he was on the mound.
Morse would add a fourth homer to Kuroda’s line score, when he led off the sixth with his second of the day and 26th of the season. His first home run came on an inside, 93-mph fastball. In the sixth, he yanked a low-and-outside curveball into the visitor’s bullpen, a missile that never rose more than 35 or so feet off the ground.
Kuroda learned the same lesson as the rest of the National League: There is no safe spot to throw Morse a pitch. In the past calendar year, Morse has hit .307/.369/.554 with 31 home runs and a .923 OPS in 580 plate appearances.
“It’s real right now,” Johnson said. “He knows what he’s trying to do. He knows his approach. He knows they’re going to pound him in, and he knows how to get at it. He can hit the ball the other way, and he’s making adjustments in.”
Said Werth: “He’s made himself into a force to be reckoned with. Going forward, he’s going to be a pillar in this organization.”
The Nationals know they need to find a place for Morse. In September, he has shifted from first base to left field, where he will play next season when Adam LaRoche returns from shoulder surgery. His breakout season has not slowed a bit with the position switch. In eight games as a left fielder, Morse has gone 10 for 34 with five homers and a .794 slugging percentage.
“His concentration, his preparation, he pretty much takes a lot of pride in what he’s doing,” catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. “He’s amazing, what he’s doing right now. It’s pretty unbelievable.”