NEW YORK — As Saturday night’s eventual 4-3 Washington Nationals win moved into extra innings at what can best be described as a slow trot, danger blew in on the warm evening breeze, subtly but surely.
The New York Mets, long since eliminated from contention, had nothing to lose but a baseball game. The Nationals, plagued by injuries and hoping to stave off any more before October, had much more at stake. With every extra inning would come peril, a little more fatigue and a little more risk of injury.
So when, in the top of the 10th, Daniel Murphy sent a high flyball off the wall that protects the big apple in center field at Citi Field, he provided his team with a means of escape. They seized it and are 93-61, with 100 wins still within reach.
“If you’ve got a game to play, you might as well win it,” said Nationals Manager Dusty Baker, who admitted he will rest many starters Sunday, “and that’s what we did.”
Murphy has now hit nine home runs against the Mets in 37 career games against them. His torment extends to 35 RBI in those 37 games, or nearly one run-shaped reminder per game of what the Mets let get away.
Saturday’s homer was the Nationals’ third of the evening, and it pushed their season total to 206 — a new franchise record. The old mark was 203. Milestones like those are nice, of course. But after a half-decade of regular season achievements, new October milestones matter more. The Nationals must just get there healthy.
Murphy is one of the many Nationals veterans managing injuries. He has missed a few games here and there. Ryan Zimmerman is out all weekend with general soreness. All the regulars rested for Friday night’s game, part of Baker’s ongoing effort to keep his veteran roster healthy down the stretch.
“Dusty’s done such a great job of letting the guys know when we’re not playing so that we can get into the weight room and relax the night before,” Murphy said. “You just kind of recuperate a little bit, mentally and physically.”
Saturday’s starter, Stephen Strasburg, is a constant maintenance effort. He left the game after five innings and 83 pitches having encountered no visible signs of physical trouble — “just trying to limit things,” Baker said. The Nationals have now held Strasburg to fewer than 100 pitches in five of his seven starts since he returned from the disabled list.
“I felt good enough to continue but I don’t make those calls,” Strasburg said. “So I’m just trying to think big picture.”
The right-hander was not perfect Saturday. The Mets jumped on him early in counts and had great success in doing so, with four of their seven hits in the first three innings coming on the first pitch. Those hits combined to score three runs, though two of those runs scored on a broken-bat single that snuck through the infield. Strasburg did not pitch particularly poorly.
But his recent standard is outright dominance, so three runs in three innings constituted a disappointment. His franchise record 35-inning scoreless streak ended in his last outing, in which he allowed one run in six innings. Strasburg returned from right forearm trouble Aug. 19. In his first six starts back, Strasburg allowed as many runs combined (three) as he did in the third inning Saturday.
The fact that he is pitching at all, let alone pitching well heading into October, means that some part of the Nationals’ goal for Strasburg’s fickle health has been achieved. His whole career has been a battle against injuries, one he fought this year by pitching only from the stretch, finding ways to deal with those calf cramps that continue to pop up and going on the disabled list at the first sign of forearm trouble — a trip he thought lasted longer than it needed to. The Nationals forced caution.
By the time Strasburg left, Adam Lind had hit his 14th homer of the season — and 200th of his career — to cut the Mets’ lead to one, and in so doing set the Nationals’ franchise record for homers in a season with 204.
That number grew to 205 an inning later, when Matt Wieters hit his 10th homer of the year, becoming the ninth Nationals player to cross that threshold this season.
Offense has been the hallmark of this team all season. The Nationals entered Saturday leading the National League in on-base-plus-slugging percentage and runs. Their 206 homers leave them in the middle of the pack, which is probably for the best. The Mets lead the NL in homers with a one-dimensional offense that has not served them well.
But pitching has been the hallmark of this franchise throughout its recent run of regular season success. For all the homers the Nationals have hit this season, and all the runs they have scored, they did not win the National League East running away because they outhit everyone from start to finish. In the second half, when many of their regulars were injured, the Nationals’ OPS ranked 22nd in baseball. In the second half, their 3.48 team ERA was the best in the National League.
That second-half ERA was aided by the emergence of their remodeled bullpen, which entered Saturday with the best bullpen ERA in the National League since the all-star break. Matt Albers, Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, Sammy Solis and Sean Doolittle combined for six scoreless innings in relief of Strasburg. That revamped bullpen has never pitched behind the Nationals’ fully healthy lineup or rotation. If the Nationals can stay healthy, it might finally do so in October.