LOS ANGELES — The celebration formed into tradition at some point last month, organic glee that grew into honed choreography. The Washington Nationals hitter who cranked a home run walks into the dugout through a maze of high-fives. One teammate removes his helmet and tosses it to another, like a basketball. A second teammate forms a circle with his arms, like a hoop. The helmet gets passed around the dugout until one player decides to dunk it through the arms. Four bases means two points.
They cannot quite place the precise origin, but they are pretty sure it started at New York’s Citi Field in early August, at Kevin Frandsen’s playful prodding. “As soon as somebody hits a home run, he’s already trying to orchestrate who’s going to pass it, is it going to be an alley-oop or whatever,” Denard Span said. “He’s already drawing plays up.”
The Nationals have recently tested the creativity of Frandsen’s offensive mind. Their sudden, stunning home run binge continued Monday evening during a 6-4 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers, a showdown between two first-place teams that the Nationals won with raw power. They blasted four home runs, including two by Span, who had hit two all season before smashing a pair off of right-hander Roberto Hernandez.
“Last night, I did eat Roscoe’s chicken and waffles,” Span said. “I think that might have helped a little bit tonight.”
The Nationals have played their last four games at Seattle’s Safeco Field and Dodger Stadium, two parks with a reputation for stinginess. But the Nationals have hit 14 home runs in those four games — 10.7 percent of their home runs this year in 3 percent of their games.
“It’s not something that we live by,” Manager Matt Williams said. “We manufacture better than we hit homers. But we’ll take them. We can’t give them back. We’ll continue to try to win games however we can.”
The Nationals led the National League with 40 home runs in August, and they started September on a strong note. Their outburst will be tested Tuesday when they face Clayton Kershaw, owner of the official Best Pitcher on the Planet title.
But Monday’s barrage was made sweeter by a power outage earlier in the day. The Philadelphia Phillies used four pitchers to no-hit the Atlanta Braves. And so, the Nationals’ victory pushed their lead in the National League East to seven games and dropped their magic number to 19.
Monday’s four-homer outburst benefited a pitcher who needed it. Gio Gonzalez earned his first win since July 5 with six-plus innings in which he allowed only three hits and retired 13 straight at one point. Gonzalez’s lone mistake came when he allowed a first-inning homer to Matt Kemp, but he mostly cruised before his night ended after 74 pitches. Williams used a tandem of Drew Storen and Matt Thornton to get out of the seventh inning, which the Dodgers began with two singles.
“Honestly, I feel like I’ve had the same year from last year and the year before,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes, that’s how baseball goes. I feel like I’m still attacking the strike zone. I’m still pitching. I’m right there where I want to be.”
The Nationals handed a three-run lead to closer Rafael Soriano in the ninth, and after two quick outs Soriano ventured onto a tightrope. Yasiel Puig walked, Juan Uribe threaded an RBI single up the middle and Carl Crawford drilled a pinch-hit liner to center. To the plate came Joc Pederson, the Dodgers’ top prospect, making his big league debut as the go-ahead run. Soriano fell behind him, 2-0, before Pederson worked the count full. Soriano twirled a slider, and Pederson froze as it snapped over the outside third of the plate for strike three. Untuck. Exhale.
“We’re going to give him the ball,” Williams said. “He’s our closer. He’s been our closer all year. He’ll continue to be. There’s situations where we’re going to use other guys, but it depends on his pitch count and his workload, too.”
The Nationals’ home run surge figured to end against Hernandez, a sinkerballer who had allowed 11 homers in 144 innings all season. And then Jayson Werth walked to the plate with two outs in the first inning.
Werth made an adjustment to his swing after he returned in early August from a cortisone shot to soothe inflammation in his right shoulder.
Against Hernandez, Werth flicked foul balls until Hernandez threw him a 2-2, down-the-middle sinker on the seventh pitch of the at-bat. Werth crushed it deep over the center field fence, and the Nationals led, 1-0.
In the third inning, Asdrubal Cabrera whacked an opposite-field homer to left-center. Two batters later, Span smashed his first home run, which meant the Nationals had scored six consecutive runs on solo homers since Sunday.
The Nationals didn’t score again until Span’s next at-bat in the fifth. He came up with one out and Cabrera on first base after a walk. Hernandez threw Span a sinker belt-high and on the plate’s inner half. Span destroyed it. Hernandez threw his arms over his head. Span’s third home run of the road trip, which he began with one, sent the Nationals ahead, 5-2, and knocked Hernandez out.
“It’s a good feeling, man,” Span said. “I really can’t explain it, other than home runs come in bulk. I’m going up there, I’m not trying to hit a home run. I’m just trying to hit the ball hard somewhere.”
Back in the dugout, Span got his helmet removed. He prefers to give high-fives and watch the action. In Seattle, Gonzalez had been struck in the head with a stray helmet. The next game, he pulled a catcher’s mask over his head following a homer, just to be safe.
“Obviously,” Gonzalez said, smiling, “some of these guys can’t shoot.”
Nationals note: First baseman Adam LaRoche exited in the seventh inning with stiffness in his lower back, an ailment that held him out of a game last week in Philadelphia. LaRoche said he considers himself “day-to-day,” and Williams said LaRoche could “potentially” sit Tuesday against Kershaw. LaRoche plans to take medication to alleviate the pain. “It’s been tight for a while,” LaRoche said. “I’ve had it before. I hope it’s quick, a day or two, but you never know.”