The month ahead promises more celebratory occasions for the Washington Nationals than their victory Monday afternoon, more games when they can plant a flag or maybe spray champagne. The significance of their 2-1 win over the dismal Chicago Cubs will hardly register in the standings, where they sit above every team in the major leagues.
But history and arithmetic elevated the importance of Ross Detwiler’s seven dazzling innings and Adam LaRoche’s upper deck home run. Their fifth win in six games nudged the Nationals’ record to 82-52. Go back and read that win total again. Think about what it means.
The Nationals clinched the first winning season in Washington since 1969, the year Ted Williams managed the Senators to 86 wins at RFK Stadium. Since baseball returned in 2005, the Nationals had never surpassed the 81-81 record of their inaugural season. Washington has 28 games to play.
“That’s huge for the city and everything,” Detwiler said. “Obviously, we’re not done yet. But somebody like Ryan Zimmerman, I’m just happy for him to be on a winning team.”
Zimmerman arrived in September 2005, a few months after the Nationals made him their first-ever draft pick. He is a now a seven-year veteran with a $100 million contract, the only National to play in all eight seasons. He did not mistake the milestone for an accomplishment. “We obviously haven’t really done anything yet,” he said. But he could also appreciate the signpost.
“We’ve come a long way,” Zimmerman said. “I guess you can’t try to start an organization like we did here from the ground up and expect that to happen really quickly. We’ve gone through the process, they’ve done things the right way. It’s been a struggle sometimes, and it’s been frustrating. But I think now we’re going to be set for not just this year, but a lot of years to come.”
Each day that comes off the calendar heightens the chances of the city’s first postseason baseball since 1933. Their Nationals’ lead over the Atlanta Braves held steady at 6 ½ games Monday, but their magic number to beat the Braves for the National League East title dropped to 22.
In the morning, Manager Davey Johnson, General Manager Mike Rizzo and pitching coach Steve McCatty met with Stephen Strasburg to discuss his impending shutdown. In the afternoon, Detwiler showed what kind of firepower the Nationals’ pitching staff possesses even without its ace.
Detwiler blazed mid-90s fastballs at the Cubs, four-seamers that zipped past them and two-seamers that deadened their bats. Pitching all day with no more than a one-run lead, he allowed four hits, walked three and struck out three. He needed only 93 pitches. His seven scoreless innings lowered his ERA since the all-star break to 2.79.
“I’m learning myself more and what I need to do in different situations,” Detwiler said.
In recent starts, Detwiler had thrown almost exclusively fastballs, blazing them in the mid-90s, especially in the opening innings. It has made him more aggressive and efficient and led to some of the best starts of his young career.
“I think he kind of learned that a 94-mph fastball that moves everywhere is a really hard pitch to hit, and he should throw a lot more of those,” Zimmerman said. “And he has.”
Detwiler also realized he needed to throw more breaking pitches early, so when he needed one late he would have a feel for the pitch. Monday, he mixed in more curveballs.
“Even the ones that were bad were pretty good,” Johnson said. “Det was awesome. He’s been pretty awesome all year long, but today he was real special.”
The importance of Detwiler’s curve showed up on his final pitch. Detwiler put the leadoff man on base in the seventh, a single by catcher Welington Castillo. He induced a pop-up for the first out. Detwiler worked a 1-2 count against Dave Sappelt. He knew he had a sharp curve, because he had been throwing it all day, and he broke one off.
Sappelt chopped it toward third base. Zimmerman scooped the ball on a tricky hop and fired to second baseman Danny Espinosa, who again finished the inning-killing double play.
In the second inning, LaRoche led off against Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija and obliterated an 0-1, 96-mph fastball. The blast landed in the seats that hang over the Nationals’ bullpen. LaRoche did not hit a homer in his final 24 games of August, but he already has one in both of his September starts.
In the batting cage, LaRoche has tweaked “minor stuff to help out with the timing,” he said. “Something small with the hands and the front foot or something. But it all comes back to trying to find that timing. If I can get in position to hit, that’s all I can ask for.”
Samardzija shut down the Nationals for the rest of his outing, but once the Nationals evicted him, they tacked on one more run against the Cubs’ bullpen. With one out in the eighth, Bryce Harper smacked a single off left-handed reliever Joe Beliveau, and Zimmerman swatted a hard grounder down the left field line.
As Alfonso Soriano dug the ball out of the corner Harper sprinted around the bases, his helmet flying off as he raced home standing up with a key insurance run. Zimmerman trotted to second with an RBI double.
Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, the roommates at the back of the bullpen, polished off the victory. Storen pitched a scoreless eighth with help from Harper, who tracked down a fly ball at the fence. Clippard converted his 30th save in the ninth, but only after injecting drama into an otherwise breezy afternoon.
He gave up a leadoff single by Anthony Rizzo, then recorded two quick outs. Castillo lofted a lazy liner over Ian Desmond’s glove, an RBI single into shallow left-center.
Clippard’s errant pickoff throw moved pinch runner Tony Campana, the tying run, to second. Having ratcheted up the anxiety, Clippard struck out Josh Vitters swinging over a change-up. He began the year as a set-up reliever, but he is the third National to record 30 saves. “It’s a nice feather on the cap,” Clippard said.
Johnson emerged from the dugout and peeked at his wife, Susan, sitting in the front row. Johnson patted his chest. “So she knew my heart was beating,” he said.
The Nationals lined up and shook hands, already the best team this city has seen in more than four decades, so much more to come.
“Today’s over,” LaRoche said. “Just come out tomorrow and do what we’ve been doing for the better part of five months. Just keep stacking up wins and try not to look too far ahead. Worry about that when it gets here. But, yeah, we’re starting to see the light.”