As the Washington Nationals stomped the lowly Miami Marlins, 13-3, on Sunday, it became hard for optimistic fans not to peek at the calendar and imagine the scenarios. Despite the season’s many missed opportunities, the Nationals’ recent stretch of play has added a sprinkle of intrigue to the season’s final two weeks.
The odds of catching the first-place New York Mets remain slim. The Nationals trail their division rivals by six games with 13 remaining after the Mets’ 11-2 loss to the Yankees on Sunday night. But by taking three of four from Miami, the must-win Nationals have kept viable this potential scenario: Washington has to make up three games over the next 10 to remain alive entering its season-ending series against the Mets in New York.
“The less we think about it, the better,” said third baseman Yunel Escobar, who went 4 for 4 with four RBI. “We’re playing perfect right now, as much the pitchers as the hitters. Right now, I haven’t thought about it, nor have I heard anything about it in [the clubhouse]. We’re trying to win as much as possible.”
The what-ifs are inevitable. The Nationals will host Baltimore, which is three games under .500, for three games this week, followed by last-place Philadelphia (three), Cincinnati (63-85) for one and Atlanta (60-90) for three before the final series against the Mets.
The Mets finish with 10 games against the Braves, Reds and Phillies.
“We’re thinking about [the scenarios] all the time,” said first baseman Tyler Moore, who homered for the second straight game. “Hopefully it happens. It’s definitely possible. That’s the goal is to make the playoffs. We’re just going to try to play the best we can from here on out.”
The Nationals finished off the Marlins thanks to Stephen Strasburg’s continued run of terrific pitching and an offense that punished mistakes. The right-hander carved through the Miami lineup with darting high-90s fastballs, effective change-ups and sharp curveballs. He was in control from the first pitch, tossing seven solid innings, striking out 10 and yielding only one earned run.
“I’m just trying to keep it simple and trying to do what I’m capable of doing,” he said. “That’s just going out there and executing pitches.”
For the first time in this series, the Nationals didn’t allow the Marlins to score in the first inning. Strasburg’s only mistakes came in the second and sixth innings. Derek Dietrich reached on a walk in the second, advanced on a wild pitch and groundout and then scored on Ian Desmond’s throwing error. Strasburg (10-7) was nursing a 3-1 lead in the sixth when he hung a curveball to Marcell Ozuna, who smashed it over the Marlins’ bullpen in left field for a solo home run.
The Nationals, whose bats were dormant for the middle inning innings against Marlins left-hander Justin Nicolino, turned a one-run game into a blowout in the bottom of the inning. They scored seven runs while sending 12 to the plate, tying a season high.
Moore smashed a three-run home run to make it 7-2. The Nationals reloaded the bases after the blast before Escobar drove a three-run double to deep right-center field, making it 10-2. At second base, Escobar threw his arms up in the air, signaling for more noise from the dugout and Nationals Park crowd.
“I play like that,” said Escobar, who had his fourth game of four hits or more this year. “I’m a very emotional person during games.”
Since his return from the disabled list, Strasburg has been strong — a 1.99 ERA over 11 starts — but especially of late. Over his past three starts, he has walked only three and struck out 37, a Nationals record for a three-start span.
“Even before I pulled my oblique, I felt like I was making improvements with [my mechanics] and getting in the right direction,” he said. “That was kind of a freak thing. Obviously my arm feels strong at this point . . . just not having the innings I would hope for.”
The Nationals gave Strasburg a 3-0 lead in the first inning thanks, in part, to Bryce Harper, who played a role in all the scoring rallies Sunday. He pushed himself comfortably in control of the NL batting title, going 3 for 4 to raise his average to .343. Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon, who went 1 for 4, is at .332 in second place.
The Nationals added three more runs in the eighth inning, and rookie catcher Pedro Severino notched his first major league hit on a double. Rookies Matt Grace and Joe Ross notched the final six outs in a blowout. At this point, the postseason scenarios are simple: Keep winning and hope the Mets stumble.
“[The players] haven’t quit from the first day of the regular season, and they won’t until the end of the season,” Manager Matt Williams said. “I’m proud of them for that. I’m proud of them for how they prepare every day and have desire to win. We’ll see if we can keep this going tomorrow.”